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The Japanese Experience

Fushimi Inari gates
Fushimi Inari gates

Inconspicuous consumption

There's a dearth of trash cans in Japan because they don't openly consume things—even cigarettes which most of the men seem to smoke. Why they don't consume things in public seems to be a bit of a mystery. The best answers that I've received is that that's what they're taught in school and that it's out of politeness because not all people may be able to afford whatever it is that they're consuming. Regardless of the reason it seems to be well ingrained in the culture and everyone follows the rules. Always.

If anything it might be said that I'm after an authentic local experience wherever I go, so I've passed up no opportunity to try any of the things that Japan is famous for. On one day I went to an onsen which is a lot like a jjimjilbang only not as nice and you can't sleep there, and later in the night went to a rotating sushi restaurant where a conveyor belt of sushi eels through the restaurant and you simply grab whatever you want and get charged based on your stack of plates.

Rotating sushi restaurant
Rotating sushi restaurant

Another day I went to a city most famous for their matcha (powdered green tea) and tried a meta-dessert which had green tea ice cream, green tea jelly, green tea rice cakes and a few other components. That evening I went with a group of friends to a restaurant called Sweets Paradise which for about $15 US allows you to eat as many sweets as you want for 70 minutes. The chocolate fountain was my undoing and I left with a stomach ache, as did most of my dinner-mates.

Matcha dessert
Matcha dessert

Don't stop believing

Some of my best ideas come when I'm drinking. So do some of my worst. I suppose it's like that for most people. For me, Japan had been let down after let down. Each city boasted promise and greeted me with disappointment. I arrived in Nara with high hopes of seeing nature, but what I found was crowded, domesticated, paved boring temples. That evening I went out for dinner with a French guy from my hostel. Over dinner we had a few beers and then went to a bar. That's when it hit me: maybe I'm going about Japan all wrong. I've been getting the classic Japanese experience but not the real Japanese experience.

I had been chatting at the bar with a Japanese prosecution lawyer and I told him my situation and asked him to write the name of a place in Japanese that he thinks I should go to. A real Japanese place where I'll get to experience the real Japan. He thought about it for a long time. He went outside to have a smoke. When he came back he wrote something on the back of a business card and said: "You may have the best time here... if you don't die. Please don't die." He told me it's the poorest place in Japan but may have the nicest people. He motioned that I shouldn't do needle drugs when I'm there and I motioned back that that wouldn't be an issue. "Please don't die" he kept saying. "I'm tough" I told him. "If you get into trouble" he said, "Smile".

The next morning I woke up hungover but resolved to make it to whatever place the man had written. I packed my things and walked to the train station. I showed the people at the ticket gate my sheet of paper and they laughed and smiled, and then when they realized that I actually wanted to go there, their smile turned into a nervous grimace. "No go. Accident" the woman said. "I'll be ok" I replied. She motioned to the train schedule board and I saw there was a message in red. "Train accident. No go." Oooh, there was an accident with the train and it's not running there. I get it.

Kinkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji

What now? There were some other places in Japan that I had heard were nice but I couldn't take another let down. I went to the tourist information center to use their free wifi. I could go to Tokyo, I thought. No, that's just what they'll be expecting me to do. Plus I didn't know if I could handle a city like that with my current hangover. I need to get lost. I walked up to the woman at the counter and asked her to teach me a little Japanese. I learned three words: Mountain, North and Anywhere. I had considered hitching with an "anywhere" sign again, but apparently there's no kanji for that.

So, back to the train station I went. There are five platforms at the Nara station. The first platform was for the train that isn't running, the next two platforms went back to Kyoto, the fourth one went to Osaka and the fifth one was headed somewhere I'd never heard of. I got on the train that pulled into the fifth platform. After four stops I was back in Nara. Fine, I'll go to Osaka. I can go anywhere from Osaka.

When I arrived in Osaka I showed a ticket taker the place I was trying to go and she informed me that it was just on the other side of Osaka. In half an hour I was there. It was the first Japanese city where I'd seen homeless people. Things were a little more dirty and covered in graffiti than elsewhere in Japan, but on the whole it wasn't nearly as run down or shady as I was expecting. The lawyer from the bar had written me a message on the back of another card, which I was supposed to show to people once I arrived in the city. I tried showing it to some people and I got a variety of responses but nothing that turned eventful.

On a side alley I found a classic sushi restaurant and decided to stop for a bite. I ducked under the cloth banner hanging over the door, set down my pack and grabbed a seat at the bar. While waiting for my sashimi a woman sitting next to me asked where I was from in broken English. I told her and then showed her my sheet of paper. She shook my hand. Shortly afterward her boyfriend came back from the bathroom and she said something to him in Japanese and he got really excited. Unfortunately neither of them spoke much English so we had to communicate mostly in gestures. I took out my notebook to write something and the couple noticed my Japanese lesson from earlier that day: north, mountains and anywhere. They put it all together—the message the lawyer had written, the few words I learned: I was looking for the authentic Japanese experience and I didn't care where it took me.

The man took my journal and a pen and drew a nice map of Japan and then circled a place up north that I should go to. He wrote down the name as well. I told them that I would go there. He asked when. I said I would go that evening. Then they got even more excited. That's where they were from and further they were going back that evening! He asked if I wanted to go with them and of course I said yes. After lunch we went to the train station and I reserved a ticket on their train back home. We had about two hours to kill so we went to a nearby wine bar and sampled a selection of nice wines from around the world.

After a three hour train ride we were in a city called Kanazawa. The first thing we did was meet up with one of the mans co-workers—an Italian guy my age who spoke English—and then go out for a very nice traditional Japanese dinner. When the over $140 bill came the couple quickly snatched it up. The mans co-worker told me not to argue. After dinner they took me back to the mans house and he introduced me to his mother. His father, he told me, was the chief of police and asleep at the moment. Then he showed me to my private room where a bed was made and waiting for me.

Kenroku-en Garden
Kenroku-en Garden

The next morning the man cooked me a large breakfast and then we set off to see the city. First we went to an old neighborhood where all the samurai used to live and the buildings have remained largely intact. Then we went to the nicest garden I've seen in Japan and almost anywhere on earth. Afterward we met back up with his co-worker and toured the "ninja temple" which was equipped with many secret staircases, pit traps, trick doors and other awesome safety features. The man had to work so he left me in the care of his co-worker who is currently studying at the university in Kanazawa and said I could sleep in his dorm.

Juxtaposed with the Chinese dorm I stayed at in Tianjin, the Japanese one was much nicer. That evening the Italian guy had a study group so his roommate took me to a very nice onsen, out to his favorite restaurant and then we toured the city on bicycles. It was a perfect night with unnoticeably clean, crisp air.

This was the Japanese experience that I'd been looking for. I got to see how modern Japanese people live, try a host of traditional food and saw a bunch of beautiful sights along the way. I was sitting at a restaurant in the poorest part of Japan and just 30 minutes later was sampling wine with new friends. As I've learned, the best things happen when you don't have a plan and you're open to whatever comes your way.


He loves me not

Why doesn't he love me? Everyone else does?
I'm the lead singer of one of the most popular rock bands on earth.
I don't see why it should bother me, plenty of other people love me.
But I can tell that he wants to love me.
He came to my show. We had good weather and a good venue.
Was he put off by the expensive ticket price? No, I don't think so.
I let him get close to me, even touch me.
He loves other singers in other bands.
Maybe my facade fascinates from afar but when he got close he realized that I'm only a hologram.
Maybe if he knew the person deep down inside he'd love me.

Soundtrack: In The Mood (Glenn Miller)

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If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com

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