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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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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