Overlooking a volcano

Meet Yoshi. One of the unfortunate things about visiting a place far away is that there are always things you regret not doing. Below is the best photo of Yoshi I have. Like so many other wonderful people we’ve met in our travels, we didn’t take enough pictures of or with him. Viewed in a positive light, it’s one of the millions of reasons to see these people again.  Notwithstanding there are qualities within this photo I’d never have captured had I known I would forget to take a few more. 

I like the following photo of Yoshi. But before you look at it I want to try and describe the man himself. I understand you never fully know a person, however a some you can learn a lot from someone that is willing to open their doors and let it all hang out so to speak. Sure, in Japan it’s a culturally significant act. If you’re going to be a host, you’re going to be the best damn host there is and that means opening up your life just a little bit.

But people will surprise you when you least expect it. In Japan, the level of hospitality that we experienced, its something that will make you feel like you’ve never felt before. Here in the states we’re all so afraid of letting people in, letting people get close. And the Japanese, in our films and books and history, have this reputation of being stand-offish. There oceans of books about the closed society that is Japan. Some would say the glimmer that Yoshi shared with us was more to show that the Japanese are extraordinary and unique, but I would argue he did it to show us how similar we are and how culturally unique we all are.

There is much to be gained in letting your guard down and opening up your trust. I’m still learning. Hopefully by the time I lay to rest for good, I’ll understand how all this works mostly. Yoshi brought me and I think us both closer towards opening our hearts fully. We spent a little over four days with Yoshi and I grew to respect and love him as a friend and wise soul. It’s not just that he took in complete strangers and hosted them in such a welcoming and open manner, it’s that he did it with pride and caring. Hospitality with no-expectation of anything in return.

It wouldn’t be such a big deal and I don’t think I’d go on about it so much if I felt I could encounter it a little more here in the states. But I remain a skeptic, an un-trusting, fearful, questioning American at heart. But this man let us into his life, his home and showed us the beauty, joy and delight that can be lived in a very unique culture that began hundreds of generations before ours. In turn, he shared with us his respect and value of some of our very own cultural values that are questioned and frowned upon by people within our very own borders and shared with us his delight for the exceptional nature of our own country and that its position in the history of the world isn’t something to be taken lightly or belittled as much as we do.He taught us respect. Respect is not something that is permanent. It’s hard gained and a long and winding road. The potholes are huge sometimes and it could use a good paving. He showed us we could be the pavers or the ones driving over without slowing down. That was in our hands.

Yoshi is man that stands tall at around 5 foot 7. Every move seems deliberate, unsentimental and unwavering. Here he stands in front of a roadside egg vending machine. They aren’t the eggs he usually buys, but something of a novelty that he wanted to share with us. Us being interested in food. The sun in Kyushu is unrelenting at times and Yoshi is always prepared. Khaki safari shorts, cut just above the knee hung loosely over his energetic, seeming, thirty’ish frame. His golf shirt, collars thankfully cuffed where they belong, curled and resting on his tense shoulders, his sunglasses firmly concealing his glimmering eyes. His corporate hat pulled just over his brow, brim slightly curled from moderate wear. Gold bespectacled sunglasses flash the likeliness that the Kyushu day will blast us with its direct sun and dehydrate us with its steamy sea breeze. Skin a tanned hide of restful exertion in the South Japanese sun. Kagoshima like the Florida of his dreams. Snow falls infrequent and for brief moments at best.

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Landed in the land of Yoshi-San

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? 

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Bathing is not a luxury

Now that I've gotten my frustrations with traffic out, let's talk about something more soothing: onsens! We mentioned them briefly before but I think that onsens deserve their own post. An onsen refers to a natural hot spring that's been harnessed for a bathing facility or a bathing facility in general. And in my opinion if you haven't been to an onsen and say you've been to Japan, you haven't really been to Japan. 

Bathing is a big part of traditional Japanese culture. It's something you do at the end of the day, a ritual as a way to relax and to chat with your friends and family.They also view it as good for your health, as it makes you sweat and the water has various minerals in it – sometimes it can smell a bit sulfur-ish. It's also a big draw for domestic Japanese tourists and towns have built their economy around their hot springs. Usually the baths are divided by gender, although you can still occasionally find mixed gender onsens in a few places. It's quite lovely to see people of all ages (yes even wrinkly grandmas!) just hanging out together. If you're walking around town, you can identify an onsen by a symbol that looks like a semi circle with three vertical waves emanating from the top of it – sort of steam-bathy looking.

The etiquette is relatively straightforward; you enter a changing area, which sometimes has lockers, and you undress (yes you are completely naked – everyone else is too!). You then find the area to rinse off with water before you get into the bath. You can use shampoo and soap (which some places provide) beforehand or after the bath, but definitely not in it. Once you've rinsed off, you can jump into the bath and relax.  Think of it like a giant jacuzzi; it can be rather hot, I found myself slowly easing myself into the bath a few times. Apparently there are signs warning you not to bathe alone in case you pass out from the heat. One more thing – bring your own towels, as they don't usually provide them and I'm not sure if you can even rent them.

Some onsens have rotemburos, which are outdoor baths. They can be quite spectacular, like the one we visited in Ibusuki. Basically we were sitting in the bath and could see the entire bay and giant rock formations. Giant clouds were scudding across the sky and light rain was falling which was quite refreshing! Some people even have onsens/rotemburos in their homes, Yoshi (whom we stayed with in Kagoshima) has a one person sized rotemburo on his outdoor deck that looks out across a valley all the way to Sakurajima, the volcano. Every night we each had a scalding bath with an incredible view. So we totally recommend seeking out an onsen with a rotemburo. 

We even tried out a super rare hot sand onsen in Ibusuki. We laid down in a depression in the sand and covered the bottom half of our faces with a towel, and someone came along and shoveled a bunch of sand on us until everything was covered except for our heads. We laid there for about fifteen minutes, meanwhile we felt like we were being roasted alive because there was all this heat emanating from the sand. I felt pretty claustrophobic most of the time, I could feel my pulse going from my toes all the way up. I'm glad I tried it but probably wouldn't do it again.
Of course the best thing about onsens that it's so affordable to go. You'd think it would be expensive, but it's not. We paid around 3000 yen ( around $3 US) each for access to the onsen in Ibusuki. For me, it was definitely a different way of thinking about and experiencing bathing, as I've always seen it as such a utilitarian act. I'm of the "8 minute shower for cleaning purposes only" school and I've always hated baths. It hasn't completely changed my mind, but I like the idea of a ritual that the community participates in together and that it's a relaxing thing to do.
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Japan Practicalities

A quick list of practicalities if you’re planning on visiting Japan:

Money. Use cash, surprisingly a lot of places don’t take credit cards.
Getting cash is difficult too, though! You can’t just walk into a bank
and use their ATMs, as they are usually only set up for domestic
transactions. Two reliable places that you can get cash from are the
post office and 7-11, they always have international options for
withdrawing money.

Japan Rail Pass. If you are planning on going anywhere outside of the
Tokyo/Kyoto orbit, you have to get a JR pass. It’s expensive and
burned a hole in our pockets but buying the tickets a la carte would
have burned an even greater hole. The other advantage is that you just
flash the pass at the station worker and you breeze right through, no
need to deal with the ticket machine. And they give you a handy
schedule for all the shinkansens in English. You can use the JR pass
on some of the local lines in Tokyo, like the Yamanote line, which
gets you to many places in the city. If you plan to just explore one
area, there are also region-specific passes that are a bit cheaper.

Train reservations. We found no need to make seat reservations for
seats on the train. Of course we were traveling at non-peak hours on
non-holidays, so that may have had something to do with it.

Cell phones. Unless you’re calling friends, we were able to get by
without a cell phone. If you do need one, it’s easy to rent one from
the major airports when you arrive rather than paying ridiculous
roaming fees.

Tourist Information Centers. Use them to help book accommodations for
you and pick up free maps, brochures and info about events. Usually
they’re in the main train station of each city, but the one in Tokyo
is a bit hard to find (it’s near Yurakucho station in an office
building on the 10th floor). We picked up a particularly good brochure
called “Kyoto and vicinity Walking Guide”, put out by the Japan
National Tourism Organization, that we used to explore Kyoto.

Maps. Make use of maps on the streets. Every city we went to had a map
of the local area outside of subway stations and even bus stops with
labels of places of interest, shops, banks, etc. And usually in both
English and Japanese. Even better is that the map is oriented towards
the way that you’re facing. However in Tokyo we had no idea how to
find places with a specific address, even with a map, because streets
apparently are not named!

Cabs. We didn’t really use them, as they were too expensive. The bus
and rail lines are extremely good and easy to use so it really wasn’t
a problem.

Water. Tap water is ok to drink! Yay!

Vegetables. So, surprisingly to us, the Japanese don’t eat many
vegetables and fruit is very expensive. So if you need a healthy dose
of veggies, I suggest you bring powdered supplements or whatnot,
because just seaweed wasn’t cutting it for my system.

Hairdryers. Every single place we stayed at had a hairdryer, so no
need to bring your own.

Language. We had very few difficulties with not speaking any Japanese.
For anyone we encountered who didn’t speak English, hand signals and
gesturing worked out quite well as people are patient and will try to
understand as best as possible.

Hotels. Our favorite hotel was Hotel Monterey La Soeur in Tokyo, in
the Ginza neighborhood. It was the most expensive place we stayed at,
but was really nice in a great location, especially for the price we
paid.

Internet. For us, internet was kind of a pain to come by, as it seems
like you can only get a wifi connection if you subscribe and it’s all
in Japanese. However, we found some free/open connections that we
stole bandwitdth from at a cafe, and occasionally we had wifi or an
ethernet port at a hostel or hotel, but it’s not ubiquitous.
Especially if you’re staying at a ryokan-style place. We didn’t
venture into any of those 24-hour internet cafe/gaming places because
we already have a computer, so I can’t speak for that experience.
Sometimes the tourist information centers have a computer you can use
but they make you pay for it.

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Chicken Ten Different Ways

We just had the most sublime yakitori ever at a place we have no idea what the name is. When we were walking back to the hotel this afternoon, we spied a little place getting ready for the dinner rush. There were a couple of older gentlemen behind the counter and the display case was chock full of yakitori sticks. (Yakitori is various types of meats and vegetables on skewers that are grilled over a charcoal fire.) There wasn't a menu, but we had a good feeling about it. A few hours later we returned to check it out. 

It was a set menu consisting of ten yakitori sticks, a salad, grated radish, and chicken soup. Almost all of the sticks were chicken – but we didn't even notice until almost the end of the meal! We sat at the counter, watching the guys work their magic. The guy who manned the grilling station was so focused on his job that absolutely nothing could distract him. 

What was so amazing about this yakitori was how different each one tasted even though it was "just" grilled chicken. For instance, the wasabi chicken was ridiculously tender, just seared on the outside and raw on the inside. It just melted in your mouth. On the other hand, the chicken neck was deliciously chewy, a bit like squid or octopus. And ground chicken tastes totally different from chicken thigh! How often do you get to compare how all of these parts of the chicken compare to each other? We loved that this tiny little place focused on something so specific and had a set menu. They're so confident in what they do, you don't need a choice because it's going to be good and that you just need to trust them.

It's approximately three blocks south of Ginza-Itchome station exit 10. Go out the exit, continue walking straight for about 3 blocks, it's on the left. It has no menu, look for the old guys. 2200 yen set menu of 10 pieces.

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Japan rocks our world

OK people. The reason why we've been so quiet lately is that we've been going like mad and dithering over writing blog posts. So here's a quick overview of what we've been doing in Japan. (Yes, we will fill you in on Shanghai and Seoul in a bit, and more about specifics in Japan – like My. Favorite. Logo. Ever.)

Our itinerary for Japan was sort of a big black hole, even while we were in Seoul. Should we go to Kyoto first? Or Tokyo? Then we started reading and we were like, woh, there is so much to see here, how are we going to decide? Fortunately for us, we've been emailing Wayne's friend Nafumi for recommendations. Right after we booked our flight, she emailed us and said, I have a friend who could possibly put you up for a few nights, you should meet him! He lives near Kagoshima!

I scratched my head, I had no idea where Kagoshima was. It's a city on the island of Kyushu, the third largest and most southwestern of the main islands. It's a more tropical place, with the volcano of Sakurajima that looms large over the landscape. We said "yes please" and changed our tickets to land in Kagoshima, and Yoshi came and met us at the airport. 

We were so glad that we changed our tickets – Yoshi was the most amazing host ever. He made fabulous dinners for us every night – from shabu shabu to sukiyaki to chicken sashimi (yes it was delicious). He took us to so many places, like Kirishima national park, where we went hiking; an outdoor contemporary art museum; and an onsen in Ibusuki that had the most breathtaking view of the bay. We were so grateful to experience Japan with someone who lives here, it's made such a difference to how we perceive it. And visiting a place that is off the beaten path has also been so rewarding – I don't think we would have gone to Kagoshima on our own this time around. 

After a few days, we said goodbye to Yoshi and jumped on the train for Hiroshima. I love the trains here. They are so efficient and timely and they make sense! Even if I can't read Japanese, the system is logical enough to figure out when you look at the schedules. The train is clean and pleasant and FAST. The U.S. only wishes it had a system as nice as this.  And to top it off, the selection of food at the stations is so unbelievably good! Little lunchboxes filled with sushi or some kind of pork or rice balls or whatever. It's just so…civilized.

I also have to point out that every single meal that we've had here has been good. Even when we pick a totally random hole-in-the-wall that we have no idea what the food is going to be like, I end up cleaning my plate every time. We've stumbled upon or were brought to a ramen place that won #1 in the shio (salt broth) ramen category in its district, a conveyor belt sushi place that had ridiculously fresh sushi (and yes we tried horse sashimi), freshly made udon at another small joint in Hiroshima, okonomiyaki hot off the grill, some kind of fried chicken/fried chicken ball/fried ham combo plate (ok sounds gross but was delicious) at a place frequented by office workers…the list goes on. We've been devouring pastries every morning for breakfast because they're so good and relatively cheap. (Um yes that must be why I'm getting a belly. Sigh.)

We didn't have much time in Hiroshima so we focused on visiting the Peace Memorial Museum and the park around it, where the A-bomb dome is. Seeing the mangled dome with the walls around it that just disintegrate into rubble and visiting the museum hit me pretty hard emotionally. I tried to imagine the horror of that day but I really can't even comprehend what it must have been like. There were drawings from the survivors that were displayed in the museum that recounted their experiences and I felt a deep sadness that was also partly anger – how can we still build nuclear weapons when we already know the horrible consequences and suffering that happens? It just seems so foolish.

But I think the most hopeful thing is that Hiroshima today is not completely defined by the bomb. Yes, there are many memorials and the city strives to bring a message of peace to the world, but the city feels lively and bustling. A city that feels like it would be fun to live in – lots of great restaurants, excellent street life, easy to get around, good cultural institutions. Hiroshima feels like it's moved on to a bright shiny future.

After our short time in Hiroshima we caught an overnight train to Tokyo. We've been here for less than twelve hours, but we've managed to visit Tsukiji Fish market, wander around the smaller streets in Ginza, and see the Imperial Gardens. (and write this blog post!) So far, it seems like a city like New York. Rich and powerful. Enormous luxury cars zoom down the street, and crystalline skyscrapers glisten in the lovely spring light. I'm still trying to figure out what is Tokyo's character, what sets it apart from Shanghai and Seoul and Hong Kong. Give me another two days and I'll get back to you on that one. 

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