We haven’t spoken much about our time in Japan. By all means this is not because we had nothing to say, nothing to reflect on instead it’s quite the opposite. Japan is as it ever will be an intriguing and mysterious island for travelers arriving from a western perspective. A few hundred years ago I imagine it was even more shocking, for we have a world of bindingly interconnectedness. After we left Japan, the only country that came close to the particularly alone feeling that is Japan was Ireland. Japan stands out, culturally, geographically and as a place to move through.
I’ve lived to see the innovation and capitalistic strength that has set Japan onto the world stage. The war was long over by the time I squirmed out from the womb but Japan has infiltrated our landscape in a way that few back in the forties would dare to believe. Yet, being surrounded by the products of Japan’s efficiency and export economy has not had the effect of bringing any sort of intellectual, historical or cultural understanding of what is Japanese. When we began in February to talk about the places in the world we’d like to try to visit on this journey, Japan landed at the top of the list. So, we dug through our minds and eeked out a few loose connections that we had to the far flung island.
I’d been working in fine dining as a Chef in NY for a few years, short by any stretch of the imagination for old-school Chefs, but I had managed to make a great many friends and connections in that short period. After I’d let my restaurant know I was leaving I pulled Nafumi, our Wagyu beef supplier, aside and told her about our plans. We’d been ordering from Nafumi for over 3 years so it just seemed natural to ask her. I spoke with her on the phone more than much of my family. As soon as she learned of our interest in Japan and our supposed itinerary she insisted that we come over for dinner and discuss how she could help us in exploring Japan. Nafumi had always been a hard lady to bargain down prices, so I chose not to argue and welcomed the opportunity for a new friend.
We spent a lovely evening at her house and enjoyed a nice braise over terrific wine. She made a commitment that she would ask all her friends and see if she could find us a place to stay or two while we were there. We were shocked and thankful and left her home glad to have such a wonderful new friend and advocate for our adventures.
Time compressed and shoved us all the way to Seoul before we realized that we hadn’t done a good job at finalizing our plans in Japan. We had found a intriguing farm to stay at but that was about a week and a half away and we were leaving Seoul in a few days. Time was getting short. We began barraging Nafumi with follow up emails within a few days of realizing we were getting too close and needing to purchase tickets. The prices were creeping and for any of you that have ever traveled to Japan, you know how it is; for those who’ve yet to go, save all you can. We didn’t hear from Nafumi for a few days and started to panic. We quickly booked a flight to Tokyo as we needed to leave Seoul and be in Japan with plenty of time to find the farm we wanted to visit.
The next day, I get an email from Nafumi. “Ok, Wayne. You are good in Kagoshima.” She goes on to explain that her friend Yoshi is available and willing to ‘host’ us. We quickly called the airlines and changed our flight from Tokyo to Kagoshima. We were on our way to Japan. Into the arms of a total stranger. We only knew he was nice and would pick us up from the airport.
For the last few days in Seoul I put all that out of my mind and didn’t really think about it until we were on the plane to Japan. Who is this guy? What will he be like? Are we intruding? What are we getting into here?
Kagoshima is on the Southern most tip of Japan; the capital city of Kagoshima Prefecture in the southernmost island of Japan, Kyushu. It’s warm there and the country’s major breadbasket. It’s also home to Sakurajima one of the most active volcanoes in the islands. The airport itself is in Kirishima and that is where we first set foot in Japan.
Of all places in our travels I never expected Japan to be the place where we got given a lot of shit by the immigration and customs guys but turns out it was. You see we didn’t have Yoshi’s address. He was picking us up so he just gave us his phone number, it didn’t cross our mind that we might need that to enter. Naive Americans used to flashing our passports and going wherever we please I suppose.
There was a French couple in front of me, middle aged, plump, tan-less, ready to get fresh air, or a cigarette. So much in need of it, as I could feel the poor guy getting more and more upset by the second. They hadn’t filled out the visitor/immigration form correctly because, as stereotypes predict, they understood zero English. Most of their form was blank. Between arm motions and waving and pointing, eventually they filled in the appropriate info, probably their hotel.
Finally they passed. The immigration guy seemed plenty annoyed, but he glanced at my passport and let me through, just a wee pause at the China and then Seoul visas and he handed it back to me and waved me through. Tracie wasn’t as lucky. Her attendant was a twenty something, looked a few weeks on the job. And boy oh boy, did she have questions for Tracie. Too bad Tracie doesn’t speak Japanese and she didn’t speak English. And why the hell should she? She lives in Kyushu province of Japan. What tourists come there?
Well, we did. Eventually my old guy, after I did some hand motioning to him that she was with me (pointing at the ring finger and such) leaned over and said something that made the young woman grudgingly wave Tracie through. Yea, no address of place your visiting, make sure you have that when visiting Japan. Next, we have to pass through customs. It was two guys and our guy happened to speak English. I swear he even had a rusty NY accent. He feigned to open our bag and started to ask what we had in there and we went over it in as vague a way as we could, generally not interested in claiming anything that we might have picked up along our travels. It seemed he just was curious why Americans would be in Kyushu and that more to the point, he needed to practice some English.
He winked us through and we walked out into the airport lobby, half-searching for a mobile phone vendor and half looking for Yoshi. No signs of mobile phones, it was a super small airport, but out of the corner of my eye I saw a man look back as he was leaving the building and turn back when he saw us. We had no picture, no idea of what he looked like. A perfect opportunity for someone to take advantage of us. But he didn’t, it was him.
Yoshi briefly introduced himself to us and mentioned that he thought we’d missed the plane. He sounded a little pissed. He’d waited over an hour, our plane was late and then we got delayed by all of the lovely levels of administration we had to pass. Yoshi was wearing khaki knee length shorts an impressive navel orange shirt, leather belt and gold rimmed ray ban’s that hid his eyes pretty well. He looked late forties, but turns out was closer to late sixties. He also looked like he was ready for a good game of golf and maybe in a hurry to get there.
We walked out to his mini-van, which I noticed was covered in dust, and I inquired if it was ash. He briefly went on to explain that the volcano was very active lately and if we were lucky, we might see an eruption. Then he cut to the chase and said we should get some lunch and asked us what we wanted to try Sushi or Noodles first. We settled on noodles. And we headed off to the best ‘Salt-Ramen’ in the Prefecture, and of our lives.
We were lucky
Yoshi, then took us over to his ‘river house’, where he hurried us into his office and we dialed up Nafumi in the States over Skype. It was late and we may of woken her up, but Yoshi skipped to the chase and explained that we were here he was doing his job as a host and we all said hello and he hung up shortly thereafter.
We whizzed off, as he had a dental appointment to keep at 4pm, but he wanted to drop us off to walk around a temple while he was at his appointment. We come to find out later, on our way to his mountain house, that temple he conviently dropped us off at for a bit, was founded by monks that believed that Japan was born by the hand of god as he threw his son to Earth, creating Sakurajima volcano and Japan. In other words he had a few things up his sleeve and we could tell this part of our visit was going to be out of the ordinary and surprising.
While we waited for Yoshi we walked around the Temple and here are a few moments from our walk. It took us about 30 minutes to realize there was an immense forest that one could walk or hike and we were only able to spend a few minutes amidst the trees.
and we just peeked in...
the temple through a tunnel of trees
gradations in the trees
and then you look again
Our first Japanese Tori
And all this was our first day (except the eruption). More to come about our time with Yoshi-san in the land of mystery.