One Year On – Japan – Part 1 of 2

Yesterday marked a year since returning from my trip to Japan. I can’t believe that a year has passed already, but to really exclaim any disproportionate level of shock or surprise would mean that I am questioning the flow of time itself, jeopardising the very fabric of our collective reality and potentially throwing us all into a chaotic slipstream. Cats possibly rule the earth in this alternate reality, but let’s not bog down this entry with specifics.

The month I spent in Japan was the most amazing time I have spent in my life up to this point. (See how I future-proofed myself just then? Wedding day, birth of first child, first divorce, eating the world’s largest burger, wearing odd socks for a year, manifesting superpowers, single-handedly taking over a country of my choosing – all potential ‘most amazing time’ events) 

I’m writing this entry from memory only – no looking at photos or my Paul vs. Godzilla blog (now hosted at japan.blogostino.com – unfortunately the transfer didn’t go entirely smoothly so the last post and the title are a bit screwy, but all the words are there!) – you’ll just have to take my word for it that that’s how this is playing out because my words are my bond and my bond is not James, but mine and mine alone.

Before I actually get into the memories, recollections and reflections on my trip, I will make a statement. Blogostino would never have existed it if it wasn’t for A) My trip to Japan and B) My friend R.’s incessant, yet necessary, badgering to get me back into writing.

Regarding point A) I actually kept an A4-sized notepad with me the entire trip so that it was easily accessible and I could write wherever and whenever I wanted. I wrote 99 pages worth of material. I can honestly admit that I had never produced a body of work to that extent prior to the trip. I also used the phrase ‘more to come on that’ in that notepad more times than I care to admit.

So if I had to say there was one thing I took away from the trip, it would have to be the reinvigoration of my creative self that had laid dormant for some time. When I think back to why it laid dormant, there are specific reasons as to why, and others that make me think about what an idiot I was at the time.

The night I arrived in Japan was via Kansai Airport in Osaka. I then had to make my way to Kyoto via train, remembering that I had to purchase a J-Rail ticket for a single trip (usually these are purchased for multiple uses, so it may have seemed odd to the woman serving me). Either way, I remember noticing in the JR office (indicated by the massive green and white lights, which soon became a fixture of the trip) that lines just seemed to form everywhere you went. Orderly lines of people waiting for whatever service it was (or wasn’t).

Having purchased my ticket and finding the platform my train was arriving at, I board the train, find my seat, sit and take a look to my right. There I witnessed my first vivid memory of Japan. A man dressed in some sort of train-related uniform bending at the knees slightly and hunching over even slightly-ier (if that’s a word) and making a pointing gesture with his index and middle fingers first from his left-hand side across his body to the right, then repeating the gesture using his right hand while turning his head and staring at the direction he was pointing.

This still makes no sense to me whatsoever.

Once his little pointing ritual was complete and the train began to depart, he stood upright, stiff as a board and unleashed a massive grin and began waving goodbye to the train.

City streets flying by me and I’m staring in awe and wonder at the unbelievable amount of neon and ridiculous advertising billboards. I’ve always loved the film Blade Runner, but now it felt like I was inhabiting that world.

Arriving at Kyoto, I had directions from Greg about how to get to the guest house we were staying in for the first and maybe second night/s. Kyoto Station is a sight to behold, by the way. Sorry, I’ve already managed to write 670-something words and I really should be focused more on sleeping than I am writing right now.

Tarocafe – an amazing little guest house with the smallest bathroom door ever, if there were ever a place to put a potion labelled ‘Drink Me’, it would have been right next to that door. Possibly the narrowest stairwell ever as well, which was even labelled ‘BEWARE!’ or ‘WATCH YOUR HEAD’ that you basically had to crawl up and down. I didn’t particularly mind the potential of causing myself harm by using either of these features of the establishment as it made my already limited experience of Japan all the more intriguing.

After meeting up with Greg (or Gu-re, if you’re addressing him by the Japanification of his name – mine, since you’re so keen to know was Po-lu) we headed out and checked out some night spots of Kyoto. The city just felt so alive. I guess part of it is that overwhelming sense of ‘new arrival’ syndrome where you can’t help but exaggerate or accentuate your senses to their near-snapping points because you have no engendered frame of reference of your surroundings to call upon.

We wound up at a bar called Ishimaru Shoten. Cool, tiny bar in an alleyway. You really can’t fit more than 15 people in there at one time. Bar snacks, such as nonkatsu, which is deep-fried chicken giblets and gizzards, were consumed. As were many, many drinks. Including a then-newly discovered love for Stone’s ginger wine, which neither of us had tried before but had heard it was unbelievably popular in Australian colleges and university dorms later in the trip.

I submit that I learnt more Kansai-ben (local dialect) that night than I did any other. The problem with getting so outrageously drunk that night was forgetting everything I learnt the following day.

Kyoto was unbelievably hot and humid every day we were there. I’d shower of a morning, walk outside, and need to shower again because I’d be in a pool of my own sweat. Three showers a day kind of hot, I tells ya.

Another thing that changed since my trip in the past year – I now wear jeans. Many of you have no idea how massive that is.

The offshoots of the stay in Kyoto were amazing. Nara, where I got licked by a deer and got to see the massive wood-carved demons protecting the world’s largest wooden temple with the giant Buddha in it. Kiyomizudera – the temple that sits at the foot of a mountain with amazing views of Kyoto, ensconced by trees that turn orange, red and yellow in the autumn and the strange guy dressed in all manner of wrongness who posed for a photo out the front. Nijojo Castle with the hummingbird song floors and the palatial gardens. The Golden Temple, the stone zen garden – all these memories flooding back to me now.

The Italian couple that wanted the Golden Temple to be shinier in their photo that I took for them.

‘Sanjo Banjo’ on account of the bus trip taken back from Nijojo castle, which is seriously what it sounded like two tourists were saying when they were trying to pronounce Sanjo karawamachi (spelling may be incorrect).

Village Vanguard, where I purchased two Studio Ghibli remix CDs – one by an all-female punk group, the other by an array of DJs.

Sweets Paradise – the all-you-can-eat dessert restaurant.

Taro Bar – for its unbelievably small size, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it marketing and discussions about the films of Seijun Suzuki with Taro (owner) and Mitchell while listening to Greg play Studio Ghibli songs on piano.

Lest I forget the flaming ramen, which you can see HERE (if you haven’t already, that is).

The Vegetarian Cat Cafe, where the owners were surprised by Nodo-chan (their cat, which means Throat in Japanese) spent several minutes licking my hand. The owners put it down to one and one thing alone, “Must like nice foreign guy.”

The night spent bar-hopping with Kirsty and Greg around Kyoto. Ishimaru Shoten, The ‘A’ Bar (Piece of crap that it was), and the bar that Shio-chan from Taro Cafe worked at, which was also a contemporary art space. Some more memories of that night have to be seen to be believed.

DJ Ozma – I Rave U – I posted this on Facebook last year, but if you haven’t seen it, just watch it and prepare to be blown away.

Osaka Strut – O…Saka Strut! Keep on strut!

Some general observations I remember about Japan…

  • Trying to get used to the idea of people smoking in bars again. This was harder than I remember.
  • Convenience shops for the daily essentials – nikuman (expect to read more about this later) and a variety of energy sports drinks.
  • 100Y shops for the times when convenience stores were too expensive.
  • Vending machines on EVERY corner, but buggered if you could find a bin.

Hiroshima was one of the most profound emotional experiences I’ve encountered. The bomb memorial museum is something that has to be experienced by everyone that visits Hiroshima. I also fell in love with Hiroshima-style okonomiyaki, the first place we sampled it at, the couple that ran the store found Greg and I quite interesting and were asking us both questions about Australia. The second place we tried it at was a seven-storey building, of which four of the floors were dedicated to okonomiyaki. 8-Bit Bar in Hiroshima’s city district was something that inspired me to look into owning my own bar here in Melbourne. That hasn’t quite come to be yet (and it may very well not) but it’s something that has stuck with me.

One night in Hiroshima was spent talking about Asian cinema to Urs, who was on a surfing holiday with his girlfriend.

The girl on the tram that I impressed by offering my ‘pole’ to her. I should clarify that when I say pole, I literally mean the pole above me that I was holding onto so that I could keep my balance.

Almost forgot about Miyajima, where you take a ferry out to see the temple gates that are surrounded by water when the tide is in, yet you’re able to walk through it when the tide is out. Such a pretty, pretty island where I managed to find a 5-metre wooden spatula (Thanks to Gav!) celebrating the woodcrafting skills of the island.

Hagi, the tiny town that holds historical significance that has been left aside since the modernisation of Japan. Shopping arcades with less than 25% of the stores still open. Somewhere in one of the main shopping arcades was Greg’s friend (whose name escapes me)  and his wonderful organic cafe, where I ate some of the most amazing food I’ve ever had the pleasure of consuming. Hagi castle ruins and the graveyards we visited reminded me so much of Spirited Away.

And to think, I haven’t even started reminiscing about Tokyo yet… You may want to get a snack at this rate, or a glass of water so you don’t dehydrate. I’ll leave Tokyo until the end.

Fukuoka – the seediest town we stayed in that had a red-light district so large is actually consumed most of the routes leading into and out of the CBD. Bomes Indees, though. Such a cool bar. And Fuji, the bartender, such a cool guy. For those of you wanting to know, Bomes Indees is a Reggae Bar. Also managed to try Fukuoka ramen, which was interesting and had quite a strong aromatic punch to it.

Side note: I swear I’m not an alcoholic. It just so happened that many of our nights coincided with visiting cool bars.

Fukuoka led to a day trip to Ultraman Land, infinitely cooler by name than it was in reality, and just kind of awkward generally. Most people were wondering why the hell we were going there. If only we had listened to them. Greg did manage to waste a shitload of yen trying to win a pair of Ultraman-branded shot glasses, though. Too many men in lycra suits.

Osaka, where Greg and I visited another Reggae bar – Xaymaca. The owner of the bar was King Nobu, a former amateur boxing champion, with dreadlocks almost reaching the floor. How did I almost forget the Instant Ramen Noodle Museum? Scorn noodles were created, but later consumed by the evil overlord Zed.

Takayama, the tiny tourist-friendly town that was generally pleasant. Including a tiny store that was chocked to the brim with all manner of film memorabilia.  This stop also included a day trip to Shirakawa-go, a tiny town surrounded by mountains that has the world’s largest collection of thatched roof houses, making it a world heritage listed town. The two most amazing things about that place was that it was either the perfect setting for a horror film, or the ideal place to lock yourself away for a year and write like a mad person.

The day we were there with Aston (from memory!) and Jo, we wound up having some amazing red bean stew in a tiny house that doubled as a restaurant.

Sendai – one night of crazy drinking and I ate ox tongue prepared in several styles. Earlier in the afternoon, Greg and I had been watching sumo at a bar near the hostel we were staying at. The owner of the bar, a woman in her ’50s, took a particular shine to me. This creeped me out, but Greg thought it was hilarious. This is where I also met Millee, the crazy Canadian, but more on that soon.

Hakodate. That view. My god, that view. Everyone talks about the night view atop Mount Hakodate, but I will never forget it. Also the best damn sashimi I’ve ever eaten. Period. Full stop.

Sapporo. After Greg and I got lost trying to find the Sapporo beer factory, not the Sapporo factory, which is a shopping mall… We managed to try several types of beer and have some rather odd ice-cream. There will be more odd ice-cream stories later.

I think I’m getting worn out trying to write about EVERYTHING I can remember.

Speaking of everything I can remember, I almost forgot about Sasebo. Sasebo, the burger town. Where Greg and I were determined to eat at least seven hamburgers. I’m not kidding, this town has at least 20 burger stores. We managed four in the end. Some we couldn’t find. Others we were upset that we managed to find (Lucky’s, I’m staring at you) and some we were helped above and beyond to try and find. A small woman who walked out from behind her stall to help give us directions, then backtracked (still away from her stall) to find us and tell us that she was wrong at first, and would take us to where the place was.

I could easily write another 2,000-plus words on how nice Japanese people are. You’ll just have to take my word for it. There is, of course, an undercurrent of insular racism. However, 99% of the people I met were not part of that, nor did they believe I was some sort of gaijin devil.

In part 2 of this entry, I will reminisce about Tokyo, Roppongi and other levels of reflective details. I figured this one was getting a bit too long for its own good, so have gone for the split!

2 Replies to “One Year On – Japan – Part 1 of 2”

  1. We also went to Japan about a year ago! We were in Tokyo for two and a half weeks, and it was also one of the most amazing things we have ever been through (including our Wedding day! no just joking…) For us it was all about the food. OHmyGOD such amazing food! And those food malls! AHH! I was addicted to those food malls.
    ps – yes, you must come in for some Dirty Granny (that’s the name of the Cider btw, it’s not a code for anything else)

    1. Cool! And yeah, Japan is amazing. Tokyo is something else altogether. And I’ll be writing about a particular food mall in the next entry…

      Flippin’ heck. Everything ever is trying to get inbetween me and a Dirty Granny… Yay for taking cider names out of context!

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