Tag Archives: japan

Things as They Ought to Be

It’s noticeable as soon as you disembark the train from Tokyo. Things just look a little different. Everyone’s shirt is not fully tucked in. People are a little rounder and some are a few weeks past due for a haircut. There is litter on the street. Not a lot, but after the scrubbed streets of Kyoto and Tokyo, it is visible. A couple of older guys stand under the “No Smoking” signs, sharing a story and puffing away. Both have on baseball hats and looked like they didn’t spend a lot of time choosing their wardrobe today. The smell of fried food drifts from somewhere nearby. People tend to wander, or maybe just walk with a little less purpose here. Voices are a little louder and everyone doesn’t stay in line. It’s immediately clear you have arrived in a different part of Japan. Welcome to Osaka.

 

 

 

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Osaka Castle

 

 

We struggled to choose a 3rd city for our visit to Japan. Kyoto had been an obvious choice. History, culture and sophistication. Tokyo was an easy decision. Modern, stylish and fast paced. We thought about something to the north or in the green countryside. Maybe something in the southern islands. Our budget is pretty tight and we were feeling pinched after rent, food and transportation. We really needed to find a place that had a lot to do, good transportation and wouldn’t require too many moves.

 

 

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Dotonbori

We had begun our travels in Japan at Osaka’s huge Kansai Airport a couple of months earlier. Normally we are one way travelers, but this time had chosen a round trip from San Francisco. So eventually we were going back to Osaka. Perhaps we could locate ourselves in Osaka and save some time and money on connections later in the month. Could we find enough to keep us occupied for a whole month?

 
Osaka is known for two things in Japan. Business and food. A common greeting in Osaka is “Have you made any money today”?. Even in a country as obsessed with food as Japan, Osaka stands out as being a mecca for foodies. It is said that while a person from Tokyo will spend his last dollar on fashion, a person from Osaka will always opt for food. One restaurants motto is “Eat until you are bankrupt!”. Maybe this explained the slightly expanded beltlines that we noticed upon arrival.

 

 

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Osaka Castle

Our apartment was once again very small, but well located in the Namba area. Close to transportation and with a nice view from the 11th floor balcony, the apartment offered everything we needed, although without many luxuries. It was bright and clean and the simple furnishings had been recently upgraded. It was perfect and proved to be everything we needed for a comfortable stay.

 
Best of all, we were just a few minutes walk from the famous tourist area of Dotonbori and visited it often during our stay. Dotonbori is a neighborhood that stretches for about 8 blocks along the Dotonbori Canal in the Minami area of town. People have come here for hundreds of years and the area is so famous throughout Japan that it has produced some iconic images. During the day it is packed by shoppers and tourists buying souvenirs and eating any variety of foods, many cooked right on the street. At night the area really comes alive after the sun goes down and the lights come up.

 

 

 

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Shinsekai

Filled with huge neon billboards, music, smells of fried food and blinking lights the area is reminiscent of a beachside boardwalk tourist area that provides anything to amuse a visitor. Wall dragons, giant moving crabs, huge illuminated puffer fish and a famous mechanical drumming clown called Kuidaore Taro have become iconic symbols of the city. Kuidaore was a mascot for a popular restaurant and generations of Japanese built family memories posing for photos in front of the clown. The restaurant is no longer open but Kuidaore has a special place in the center of the strip where all visitors must continue traditions and pause for a group photo.

 

 

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Kuidaore Taro

Probably the most favorite street food here is called Takoyaki. Basically a golf ball sized pancake made from batter formed in a special rounded pan, this theatrically cooked street food is enjoyed by nearly everyone and is hard to pass by without sampling more than once. Tako (octopus) and tempura bits are added to the ball as it is being cooked. Once golden and rounded, a special sauce and mayonnaise are drizzled over the top and dried bonito is sprinkled on top to give a nice crunch. By description they may not appeal,, but they are actually delicious, cheap and very addictive.
The entire area was completely destroyed during World War II but has returned bigger and brighter than ever. Perhaps our favorite area to stroll were among the tiny alleys just south of the main street of Dotonbori. The alleys are lined with tiny restaurants and bars that provide a glimpse of the area when it was a theatre district long ago. The tiniest alley of all has a street museum which uniquely gives a feeling of what life was like here before the bright lights of modern times. A small shrine is hidden amongst the alleys and provides a moment of solitude amongst the commotion not far away. Visitors throw water over a statue at the shrine so often that it is now covered with moss and is quite beautiful.

 

 

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Shinsekai

A few blocks from our house was perhaps the best street market in Osaka. Kuromon Market is a seafood lovers paradise. If it is found in the ocean and can be eaten, you can find it here. Scallops, shrimp, sea urchins, eel and every type of fish imaginable can be had. Many shops will grill your selections to order over charcoal fires or in a sizzling wok. While the seafood markets are king, beautiful cuts of Kobe (Wagyu) beef can be had along with some of the most spectacular fruits and vegetables imaginable. While visitors can be found, patrons are mostly local and give the market an authentic feel that was fun to share during our nearly daily visits. The market runs many blocks and with a more robust budget we probably would never had eaten anywhere else in town.

 
Osaka’s malls are not to be outdone on the food front either. Unless someone was starving, I don’t think I would ever recommend eating in a mall food court. Not so in Osaka. Every major department store has a basement food areas that are must see attractions for any visitor. Prepared foods are wonderfully displayed in glass cases. Both savory and sweet flavors are equally catered to,, but deserts perhaps draw the most attention. Beautifully prepared and packaged, the sweets are designed to appeal as much visually as they are to a persons sweet tooth. Every shiny color in the rainbow is found in the assortments of gorgeous preparations. A massive gourmet food market will usually be found on the lowest basement floor of each store. Here is where you will find the best of Japan’s bountiful ingredients. We always made time to gawk at the perfect melons, peaches and grapes that have to be the finest examples of agricultural goodness anywhere. The perfectly formed produce has incredible prices that precluded us from sampling with anything but our eyes. I don’t know who would pay 50 dollars US for a cantaloupe or 25 dollars for a bunch of grapes or a set of 3 peaches but just the thought of sampling some of these always left our mouth watering.

 

 

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Namba Parks Mall

The convenient transportation connections near our house made it very easy to make our way around town. We visited the waterfront area of Osaka’s massive harbor. We found giant Ferris wheels, more malls and a world renowned aquarium. The area was especially gorgeous at sunset.

 

 

 

 

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Todai-ji Temple- Nara

 

 

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Nara Deer

 

 

We also had easy access by train to enjoy areas outside of town. We made an easy day trip to Japan’s first capital of Nara less than an hour away. Known for its World Heritage site temples and free ranging deer, Nara could have easily filled more than the one day we had to visit. We even had an opportunity to see a unique dragon boat festival on a lantern decorated lake that entertained thousands of attendees with costumes, music, food and intricately designed boats floating slowly on a mist covered lake.

 

 

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Dotonbori

Back in Osaka, a last area that we enjoyed was called Shinsekai. Shinsekai means New World in Japanese and was an area that was designed in the early 1900’s to represent the new modern world that Japan and Osaka were to become. Designed to be resemble parts of New York combined with parts of Paris, the neighborhood spreads around the massive central Tsutenkaku Tower and is adjacent to the city zoo and the large Tennoji park.

 
The area presents a slightly run down carnival like atmosphere of glitzy and gaudy signage. Rickshaw runners provide visitors with tours of the streets that are filled with restaurants, gaming parlors and brightly lit amusements. While here we learned the story of Billiken, the golden colored mascot of the area. Billiken was originally found outside an amusement park that was located in the area. While the park only lasted for 11 years, Billiken has remained as a symbol of the area and perhaps has been adopted by the whole city.

 

 

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Shinsekai

Billiken is large, golden and has a impish smile on his baby like face. His likeness is found throughout town and quite noticeable everywhere. Around the base of his statue is the motto “The God of Life as it Ought to Be”. He has a look of someone who enjoys life and knows that life is meant to be lived with enthusiasm, enjoyment and perhaps a little less conformity.

 

 

 

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Osaka Streets

We thought that Billiken was the perfect symbol to represent our visit to Osaka. We found a city where hard work has built a modern economic powerhouse where everything once was a ruin. However, it appears that while Osakans believe in focused labor and aggressively chase a rich industrial future, they have not forgotten that life is meant to be enjoyed. Fun, food and a little less formality are obvious everywhere and made this unique city a perfect place to conclude our travels throughout Japan.

 

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Osaka Mechanical Crab

 

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A Trip to the Future

I have seen the future. It is filled with tall buildings, bright lights, endless noise and millions of people. Excitement, entertainment and enjoyment take place above your head, below your feet and in your face. The future goes non-stop and doesn’t conform to any normal positions of the clock. It’s bigger and more bright than I ever imagined.

 

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Shinjuku Nights

 
The future is reached by a train that speeds across the countryside at 200 miles per hour. The train passes volcanic mountains, verdant rice fields and miles of well tended farmland. It arrives on schedule, to the minute, in a massive station filled with well dressed people moving at a pace that immediately demands your full attention. Like a choreographed dance, the pedestrians move fluidly and efficiently through the maze of underground passageways, all the while multitasking with the latest smartphone that everyone interacts with continuously.

A taxi provides transport to an apartment in Ikebukuro, a somewhat distant neighborhood of Futureworld. Typical here, the apartment is tiny and equipped with everything needed, but nothing extra. A slight lean to the right yields a skyline view of Shinjuku that shines brightly at night from our tiny balcony. A busy 4 lane freeway runs very close outside the window 24 hours a day. That doesn’t seem unusual except our apartment is on the seventh floor. Highways in the sky in this land of tomorrow.

 

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Tokyo Tower

 

As a tourist, where do you start?

Need to find a restaurant? Been to cities where there is one on every corner? In the future they have one, or more, on every floor of multiple multistory buildings for multiple blocks in a row. It is estimated there are 100,000 restaurants here. Plastic food recreations display the menu in brightly lit windows. Every variety of food is available in every kind of restaurant. From glimmering penthouse view restaurants with the latest fusion cuisine to three seat open grills with meat on a stick and charcoal fires. If you want it, you can find it.

 

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Tokyo Station

 

Want to share lunch with the animal kingdom? There are cat cafes, dog cafes, owl cafes and rabbit cafes where, for a fee, you can be accompanied by a pampered furry friend. You can dine with a penguin (or two). You can watch a robot show or be entertained by a host of animated characters of any number of types. A full on disco, decorated with neon colored fish tanks is available, if you need one.

You may ask where the nearest old town area is. A place where things slow down to a quieter pace. A place where a tourist can relax and stroll slowly through some historical old world culture center from days gone by. It doesn’t exist in the future. There are some ancient, ornate temples here or there. But look up above the ancient structure and try not to notice the second tallest structure in the world flashing its lights in the clouds above.

 

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Ginza Sunday

 

Wherever you go, you will probably go by train. Metros below the ground. A driverless elevated trains passes through and above the futuristic building in the harbor . Monorails speed passengers to the airport. A last tiny tram rumbles roughly through the valley of skyscrapers that have grown around its rickety rails. You may ride all of them in a single journey to some trendy corner of Futureworld.

The metro is not just a form of transportation. It is an amazing engineering feat that is a destination in itself. More than 120 miles of track. 179 stations. 6 billion passengers a year. Grocery stores, restaurants, clothing stores, bakeries and souvenirs are all located underground. Virtually an entire city underground. With the right combination of elevators, escalators, and subways, you can leave the front door of your 40th floor apartment and travel 20 miles to your office in a distant skyscraper office building . Return home in the evening, stopping at a gourmet market and picking up your dry cleaning, all without seeing the sky. No need for an umbrella in Futureworld.

 

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Godzilla in Kabukicho

 

Shopping is an art form here and everyone seems well practiced. Teenagers start young in the eclectic streets of Harajuku. Schoolgirls in uniform crowd Takeshita Street looking for the latest outlandish styles. Boybands with cotton candy colored hair make an appearance outside a trendy bistro, swarmed by giggling fans with smartphone cameras. The styles are beyond anything I have seen and reflect a life in a city that changes trends by the minute instead of by the year.

 

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Rainbow Bridge and Tokyo Tower

 

In Futureworld, malls are destinations and are always full. Our local mall is called Sunshine City. Appropriate as we have spent many a rainy summer afternoon there. Also fitting because it is more of a city than a mall. It has two indoor amusement parks, a museum, a performing arts center, an aquarium, an international food area that must have 40 full scale restaurants. It has an virtual reality attraction called Sky Circus which is located on the 60th floor of the attached office building. That’s correct, 60th floor! It has a center atrium where some performance is usually taking place. Perhaps a meet and greet with the latest J-Pop idol or any number of Pokemon or anime characters. Not the normal local mall.

As shoppers become more sophistacated they eventually migrate toward the Ginza. Every big city has designer stores, but not like this. The streets are blocked to vehicles on Sunday. It is the perfect time to make your way down the cavernous main shopping street. If big budget shopping has a mecca, Ginza is it. Every famous designer, jeweler or electronic manufacturer of any note has a multistory complex dedicated to their wares. The stores are packed with shoppers and judging by the stylish customers, sales must be good.

 

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Sumida River with the Skytree and Asahi Building

 

You may think that a megacity of 30 million people would be reminiscent of some grungy futurisitic movie where grime and despair have invaded every portion of existence. I haven’t seen it. No graffiti. No litter. No homeless people. People are orderly and wait in lines. Women leave Gucci purses on chairs to save their place while waiting in coffee shop lines. No one takes their chairs or more importantly their purses. Everyone bows and seems polite. Shopkeepers seem genuinely glad that you have chosen to do business with them. Mothers encourage youngsters in strollers to wave back to old strangers visiting from far away. There is no tipping in Futureworld.

 

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Harajuku Shopping Center

 
This has not really been a normal tourist month spent in a faraway destination. There really is not a defining example of what it is like to live here. It is too big, too complicated and too diverse to define. It is too intense to get to know intimately. There are too many crazy things at the end of too many tiny alleys in too many districts to ever see in a lifetime, much less the time I spent here.

I was wowed by the great cities of Rome, Paris and Los Angeles. They are wonderful and each stands by itself as a great world treasure. Tokyo is different. I’m not really wowed, I’m dumbfounded. At times I have come around a corner and been stunned by what I have seen. My jaw has literally dropped. It doesn’t seem fair to compare other cities to this metropolis. It is my new standard for bigger and better. Everything past this point will be compared to what I have seen here. If this is the future, I can’t wait to get there.

 

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Imperial Palace

 

Complaints about Permanent Vacation

Vacations, like sunsets, were designed to be temporary. A continuously lit neon sky, filled with rainbow colors from end to end, certainly creates emotions too intense for endless consumption. While no gourmand refuses a piece of rich, creamy chocolate at the end of a delicious meal, even the most dedicated sweet lover would assuredly tire of an endless diet of cocoa flavored goodness.

 

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Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

Like a spoiled debutante complaining about not having enough closet space for her shoe collection or an overindulged teen bemoaning his sore fingers after playing video games all day, there is an obvious danger in complaining about being on endless vacation. No one really wants to hear your lament. If only we all had such troubles.

 
However, I have to admit that as we begin our 7th year of continous travel, we do catch ourselves complaining once in a while. We have now lived in 85 cities in 40 countries. If this trip were a cat, it would surely have exhausted seven or eight of its 9 lives. While hardly a day goes by when something doesn’t happen to make us pinch ourselves to make sure we aren’t dreaming, we do find ourselves, at times, questioning the sanity of living a life of constant change.

 

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Kinkaku-ji Temple

After 18 months of circling Europe and the Mediterranean fringes of Africa and Asia, we needed a little break. It was time to go home. Time to see relatives face to face and perhaps ask a doctor for a professional opinion about our actual state of health. After a steady diet of buses, trams, subways and taxis, we thought it a good idea to spend a little time behind the wheel of our own car. Maybe a month without rice or pasta. Time to have a few french fries with our meal.

 
It was wonderful to see everyone. Some looked a little older and some looked a lot thinner. We had full blown conversations with babies who we used to just laugh with. We remembered how good gravy tastes on mashed potatoes. We excitedly met future family members and saw people we shouldn’t have been away from this long. It was good to be home. We had been gone so long we forgot how much we had missed.

 

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Despite what we see on the nightly news, America seemed pretty much the same. Maybe a little fatter than I remembered it. Gas was cheaper and the supermarkets had more choices. Houses were bigger than I remembered and the traffic was a little worse. Televisions now look more like movie screens, but cars are as big as ever. The ability to drive came back to us quicker than we thought it would. The guy in my new drivers license picture definitely looked older. The doctor said we didn’t seem too much worse for all the wear. It was odd to understand every conversation around us.

 
It wasn’t long and we were on our way again. The month passed much too quickly. We loved Europe and are sure we will go back soon. But this time we wanted to try a different direction. Somewhere with a unique culture and a way of life that, while similar, is so much different. Time to cross a different ocean. A little less pasta and a lot more rice. It was time to take on Japan.

 

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We arrived in Kyoto late in the night. The cab driver had white gloves and a dapper hat. He bowed when we paid him. He didn’t want a tip. Is this a real place? Our apartment is small. We only have one burner to cook with. The shower room is designed for water to spray outside the tub. The washing machine and air conditioner have no buttons in English. I hit my head every time I walk through a doorway. We love it.

 
The weather is insane, jungle, center of the sun hot. The thermometer says 95, but it feels like 105. You sweat through your shirt walking to the bus that takes you everywhere. The city is huge and everything of interest seems to be spread out to the farthest reaches of town. Beautiful green hills surround the town and some of the most beautiful temples and shrines are located in them.

 

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The streets are unbelievably clean. No litter is found anywhere. No one smokes on the street. People wait in line and are polite. Bus drivers bow to the passengers when they have shift changes. Old people do not stand on buses when young people are sitting down. People keep their conversations quiet. It is remarkable.

 
Kyoto is said to be the cultural capital of Japan, but it is much more. More than 1600 shrines are located here and the old style wooden houses, called Machiya, can be found in many areas, especially around the Gion neighborhood in the center. However, the train station and some of the department stores in downtown are as modern as any we have seen. The shopping area has any designer brand you could desire. Many Japanese tourists dress in beautiful kimonos and pose in front of the must see sites, but others are dressed stylishly in the most modern fashions. The past seems perfectly preserved within the very modern present.

 

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We have spent our days touring the city from one end to the other. Temples, markets, shrines and bamboo forests have all been destinations. Walks along beautiful rivers during the day and through narrow, lantern-lit alleys in the nights will be long remembered. The hours spent huddled in an 800 year old temple during a blinding afternoon rainstorm when it didn’t seem possible the air could hold that much water, will be with us for a while.

 
We were hypnotised by the deafening sound of hundreds of cicadas as we sat alone in an ancient Buddhist cemetery outside a stunning mountainside temple that we surprisingly had all to our selves one afternoon. We found ourselves stunned by the beauty of our first sighting of a Geisha as we sat alongside a tiny stream that runs past ancient wooden houses. Her tiny steps and flowing kimono made her appear to float as she made her way quickly and silently across a tiny ornate bridge nearby.

 

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We made our way to Arashiyama bamboo forest early one morning to avoid the crush of tourists that descend every afternoon. Our effort was rewarded as we listened to the early morning wind pass through the giant shoots that towered 100 feet above us. We loved the taste of the shaved ice we enjoyed in the shade of the tiny alleyway outside an ornate Shinto shrine. The ice cream and sweet bean paste additions were unexpected but delicious.

 

 

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We loved our time at home. It was wonderful to visit loved ones. It is them that makes home what is. We didn’t miss America as much as we thought we would. It will always be home, but as we start our 7th year of our journey, we realize how much we enjoy our time discovering new places. We still have not cured our wanderlust. As always, we have found a few things to complain about. But nobody wants to hear about that.

 

 

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Kinkaku-ji Temple