A Travellerspoint blog

Japan Top 5

We flew around the globe in 18 days. Boston west to LA to Tokyo; then Tokyo west to London back to Boston. This wasn't planned, or by choice; we got screwed by American Airlines. The extra 7 hours gave me time to eat Fish-n-chips over a pint and reflect.

What I will miss most:
Sushi, obvi.
Japanese Shower Toilets, so refreshing.
No tipping! You pay for the food and the booze and that's it; no math involved.
The neon pedestrian man: who showed how much time you have left to cross.

What I won't miss:
smoking in some restaurants.
lack of breakfast food places (hot dogs do not constitute breakfast!)
The hurry up and eat culture
The itty-bitty 2-person beds- glorified twins, really

Matthew says Japan ruined Boston for two things:
sushi and the trains

My Japan Top 5:
1. Kyoto. Every day in Kyoto was wonderful. On my most favorite day I saw geisha for the first time, walked the Philosophers Path, ate Kyoto buttered toast and omikased at Tseuneo, ryokaned at Gion Morisiyo.

2. The food. It was difficult to contain it to even a Top Ten meals- a couple meals made our List of All-Time Meals! My absolute favorite was the Tseuneo omikase in Kyoto with the fedora-hatted chef, the man with the heavy-hand grating truffles. We did not feel rushed and he introduced us to caviar. The Tsukiji fish market and the Kanazawa sushi- I mean, you can't get any fresher than that! And a dab o' wasabi will do ya. Many of the meals were memorable: the omikases, izakaris (especially the Kanazawa one), sushi, beef - Kobe (it really is THAT good) and Hida, ramen, and soba... The food definitely is a highlight.

3. The Satoyama Experience bike ride through the Hida countryside. Japan is full of so many neon, sensory-overloaded cities, it was so nice to get out and peddle through the rice patties, and to get my curiosity questions answered.

4. The Sumo tourney was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I may not totally understand it, but I appreciate it. And it was fun to be a part of it.

5. The gardens. Again, I admire how the Japanese, no matter the chaos, manage to carve out a bit of nature amid the crazy. The dry- landscape gardens were my favorite.

Posted by LaurendeMatt 16:16 Archived in Japan Comments (0)


Sumo is a big deal here. It's huge. Like, they are celebrities that date the supermodels. We witnessed their elite status at the Nagoya Basho (one of six 15-day championship tournaments they have each year) as hoards of women, all ages, and men in fact, anxiously awaited the wrestlers as they arrived at the facility, snapping photos and swooning. A Red Carpet of sorts (this was lined with baskets of sunflowers and had no carpet at all, but pure pavement - which adds to the experience as you can hear their wooden-bottomed flip-flops dragging with immense force) is full of press and cheering fans.
But that came later for the Big Time Celebrity Sumos. We were there early and saw how the excitement built throughout the day.

Not many fans were around the stadium when we first arrived at 10:30 in the morning. We knew this was amateur hour, but we went anyway, wanting to get the whole experience. We passed by a bunch of patterned-cotton-kimono'ed Sumos as they wobbled over to the Aichi Prefecture Gymnasium for their daily match. Sheryl asked to take a photo with, what appears to be, a very serious - some may call surly or grumpy by his manner - of Sumos. Maybe he was getting himself in The Sumo Zone?

Once inside the barely attended stadium, we were able to get up close for the first round. Up so close one can really get an appreciation for the size of their body parts, since most parts are bare and exposed. Matthew guessed one had a day job at the Nagoya Hooters (which is a real place). The seats surrounding the ring weren't really seats at all, but square cushions on the floor. Fans sit a few feet removed from the raised-ring circle-platform: this is for their safety as we later saw why: Quarter-ton men roll over its sides or are pushed off and onto whatever lies below.

Each match lasts less than 10 seconds. Well, I should clarify and say, the actual fighting time, is less than 10 seconds. Don't blink. There is no JumboTron to replay any matches. And there is no weight classes: some big guys fought wicked big guys. Some "underweights" actually won. No matter the size, they each had a slicked top knot. There are 4 judges ringside (in case of a dispute), a caller who belts out in a singing/Rene Rencourt-y way the winner of the match, the maintenance crew (who broom the dirt-ring smooth) and the ref, who always donned the nicest of outfits. The colors and the patterns and the fabrics are way nicer than the NFL's black-and-white striped polyester.

We asked more questions than got answers:
Tassels dangled from each 'uniform': what do the tassels mean?
Tassels matched their uniform thong color - are they leveled like karate belt colors?
How does one get so big? What is their daily diet?
Do you think they need to buy two seats on an airplane?
The tourney is 15 days - how many matches do they fight? And is it single elimination?

After we got back from our lunch break (which you are only allowed ONE break - they secret stamp your hand and mark your ticket) we definitely, even as novice Sumo fans, could see the difference in caliber. More pomp and circumstance, more colorfully elaborate apron-uniforms, more salt throwing, more sumo moves. Plus the stadium was crowded for the second round and packed and rowdy for the third round.
This sport is like no other. It is typically Japanese, in my opinion, as there is a lot of ritual, spirituality, intimidation, and a whole lotta waiting. During the second and third rounds, they got their own pillow cushion to sit on while waiting ringside for their match. There is more of an entourage, with an awaiting cloth to wipe the sweat (from walking into the arena?). There are three, at times more, trips to the respective corners for a wipe or for another handful of salt. There is more standing, leg extending (what great balance!), squatting, clapping and slapping of the body - all parts. It's all part of the intimidation of pre-game, but when the pre-game outlasts the actual fighting multiple times over, it loses me a bit. The anticipation of, is it going to start now? now? How about now? It finally starts when the ref is ready and both Sumos have touched both fists down in the ring. I think. It all happens just so quickly.
The winner is the first to push the other out of the ring, or make the other touch the ring floor with any body part other than the soles of his feet.

Surprisingly, there were two white men Sumos. They could be identified by their hairy backs. The third-rounder won his match! For the record, like geisha, Sumos take cabs too. And we discovered during our lunch break, some take the subway after the match. They must be the losers.

Posted by LaurendeMatt 08:28 Archived in Japan Tagged sumo nagoya Comments (0)

Sakae and Sake

Inspired by the movie premise last night, we went in search of something we fear. We had seen a tank full of pufferfish, or blowfish, in our wanderings yesterday. There was a small stall with one cook inside and he offered 2 sushi pieces of the potentially poisonous, lethal fish, if ill-prepared. This morning we psyched ourselves up for it, making sure to check his Blowfish Preparation Certification, only to find It, fugu, completely Sold Out. Sold Out?! I have to say, I was more disappointed than relieved. No fugu for you.

In Takayama we wandered the old part of town. I searched unsuccessfully for more fugu stalls. And we shopped before making our way onto our scenic train to Nagoya.

Nagoya, and our hotel in Nagoya surprised us. We did not have high expectations for the city we happened upon because it hosted the Sumo Tournament. It was lively, it had charm, and it had some grit, which we appreciate. And our hotel, the Richmond Hotel, had us at "free drinks".

With only a little trouble, we found my friend Sheryl and her husband Juraj. We were intentionally specific with our meeting place: Subway station Sakae, exit #6 at the outside entrance. In a country like Japan, that is not specific enough. Matthew and I were waiting for 30 minutes a block away at Sakae Street, exit #6 on the outside. Apparently that was the mall exit, and not the subway exit, which is identified by blue signs.
Oh. Ok.
Bottom line, we found each other. We ate at a crowded, rowdy place where we had our own nook. We pointed to a bunch of pictures and ordered. Sheryl and I ordered sake and got our own bottles of it. Needless to say, there were stories swapped and lots of laughs.

Posted by LaurendeMatt 14:38 Archived in Japan Tagged nagoya Comments (0)

This Year's Beef

The last major food group we needed to "check-off" was soba noodles. According to tripadvisor, we needed to eat at Teuchisoba Ebisu; and it was spot-on. In its front window we saw the tail end of the cook cutting the buckwheat noodles. We sat in the leg-numbing, criss-cross, pretzel-position while eating at a traditional Japanese low table. The cushions did their best to lessen the discomfort.
Our server gave us a very handy comic instructing how to eat cold soba properly:
1. Put as much wasabi and spring onion into the sauce as you like and mix it all together.
2. Use your chopsticks to pick up some of the soba noodles and dip them in the sauce before eating.
3. It is customary to slurp the noodles. ZUZU ZUZU (smooth smooth)
4. By slurping the noodles, air is mixed with the noodles and the sauce. The noodles and sauce then become aromatic, and you can enjoy both the taste and smell of them. If you don't slurp, you will miss out on this beautiful rich flavor.

At 2 pm we had a to meet our Satayama Experience bike tour guide, Shinji, in Hida-Furukawa, a 15-minute train ride. With us was a family with 3-grown boys from Indonesia. It was a 2 1/2 hour tour through the countryside. The flat course took us through the canal-lined streets filled with Koi fish (Karp in English), through rice patties, into a nice-lady's house, past the gender-separated Hida beef-cow pens, along a fresh spring where we bottled up some of the pure water, and stopped for barley tea.
We learned a lot along the way. I was very happy to have a willing person answer all my questions.

Q: It seems as though Japanese eat anything that swims, why not the Koi fish? Are they sacred or something? or just taste bad?
A: No they are not sacred. They are looked at more as pets. The townspeople offer baggies of bread so others can feed them. I have not tasted them, but I heard they do not taste good.
Because the winters are so bad and the canals freeze up, the townspeople catch all 1000 or so Koi and put them in a safer location.
(Luckies, they have their own winter residence!)

Q: I hear the sound "maas" at the end of much Japanese dialogue directed towards us, what does that mean?
(If it actually meant something derogatory he didn't let on. Instead he said,)
A: It is the more formal way to address someone. It shows respect.

Q: Why are so many kids in uniform now?
A: Most kids are on summer break, which is 5 weeks long. During the summer some offer extensions like field trips or classes.

Ryokan Tanabe is classified as an onsen ryokan (traditional hot-spring inn). To avoid any tired muscles, I went for a soak. The stone bath was open for women. Making sure I'd followed the many rules first, I relaxed. On the way back to the room, with my cotton kimono wrapped around me and my sash tied haphazardly in one tie, I was stopped in the ryokan hall by an older Japanese woman. She untied my tie, flung open my kimono (revealing I had indeed followed the strict no clothes onsen policy) and wrapped me up the proper way: in a pretty bow. She smiled at me, proud of herself, gave me quick pats on the back, and I thanked her. I assume she works there.

We are in the Hida Region. We must eat Hida beef. Shinji recommended Suzuya. We did it right. We bought two fat sirloin steaks. The cook was very excited as he exclaimed, "new beef, just in!" It's nice to know they're fresh..."this year's!" They are nice and marbled and juicy with fat. The best part was the dollop of wasabi and a quick soak in the sauce made each bite divine.

Almost every restaurant we enter or exit, it seems like every worker yells a greeting. This reminded Matthew of the movie, Defending Your Life, (never heard of it) so we watched it on the iPad, lying on our bellies on our separate futons.

Posted by LaurendeMatt 01:09 Archived in Japan Tagged takayama Comments (0)

Sake Crawl

The brunch at our hotel, although extensive and trying to satisfy both Japanese and Western taste buds, was awful, so we went to Omi-Cho Market instead. With appendages still twisting and twitching we watched the fishmongers corral the slippery and spiny creatures into plastic bags or styrofoam bins. We ate the freshest of sushi. Wasabi ok.

Clutching on to any last bits of Geisha culture, while Matthew showered, I made a mad-dash for Ochaya Shima, a geisha teahouse in the Higashi-chaya-gai district. Japan has deemed it A National Important Cultural Asset. Beginning in 1820 geisha entertained the high-class here. There were combs, hair ornaments and shamisen picks and a video of a geisha performance on a small stage. It was neat seeing them authentically perform on the drum, shamisen, sing, and dance with a fan. The video did not showcase their drinking game abilities or their witty verbal repertoire.

Even though the Japan RailPass literature says you do not need reservations for the Ordinary Pass, we have consistently reserved two seats. First, to ensure we are sitting next to each other and also, so we are not racing with back-packers for a seat and the overhead luggage space. We bought a bento box with almost inedible sticky-balls and some snacks for the ride.

The train ride from Toyama to Takayama through the Japan Alps was mystical with the fog hugging the trees where the valleys intertwine.

We ordered Cesaer salad and it came with bacon. Cesaer salad with bacon? Odd; but then again, "bacon added to anything ruins it," said no one ever. Takayama Is known for its sake, rice liquor; we made our own sake-crawl.
Most bars sell sake, but specialty sake bars hang a ball of cedar leaves over the entrance. We were a tad sluggish the next morning. Or it was from the corn-hole bean-bags that passed for our pillows.

Posted by LaurendeMatt 01:07 Archived in Japan Tagged kanazawa takayama Comments (0)

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