Archive for the ‘Japan’ Category

The Japanese Shopping Ritual

Friday, November 11th, 2005

6 great iPhotos

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

You’re looking around a shop in Japan. Any shop, big or small, souvenier or department store, and you find some little treasure that you like. You take it to the cash register. So begins the Japanese Shopping Ritual.

First, you are reprimanded for taking something from the display instead of simply telling them which item you wanted.

Then, no matter how big a hurry you are in, the wrapping begins. The item you have purchased, wether it be a 100 yen dangle for your phone, or a 50,000 yen tea set, is wrapped. If you bought several small items, or are in a hurry, this can be a mind boggling exercise in patience. Trying to explain that you don’t need the items wrapped will simply result in shy embarrassed smiles while the cashier tries desperately to understand what you are saying. In the end, you will only have delayed the inevitable wrapping and made yourself even later. Some stores may cheat and simply drop it in a pretty bag, fold it down tight, and tape it. The end result is that you have a pretty little package that makes shopping feel special.

The Japanese shopping ritual doesn’t end until you get home and start to unpack. That’s when you realize you have 40 or so pretty little packages and no idea what is in any of them. Being that we were gone for three weeks, many had been in the bottom of the suitcases long enough to have been nearly forgotten in the excitement of travel.

In other words, after taking all the dirty smelly clothes and the 45 CDs and the dozen or so DVDs out of the suitcases, we settled down to finish the Japanese Shopping Ritual which is pretty much like having a little Christmas, as you open each package. It was also a really interesting way to relive our vacation… “Oh Yeah! Where did we get that again?”

Yah! Kaimono (shopping)! I can’t wait to do it again!

Tokyo: Kawagoe: Kyoto: Hiroshima: Takamatsu: San Francisco!!

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

Bringing jet lag to new entertaining lows, we are home. We woke up at 7:30am Tuesday morning, packed, ran around Tokyo, got a bit lost, took an hour-something long ride to the airport, shopped at the duty free, watched three or four movies, ate some really bad airplane food, awarded our stewardess the coveted Bitchiest Bitch in the Sky Award, and hit customs in San Francisco at … 7:30am Tuesday.

It’s been a long hard day of trying to stay awake.

The trip was amazing and we will post lots of stories and pictures over the next day or so. Right now we are kicking back enjoying our first Martini in three weeks. Should prove to be an interesting and early evening.

Bicycles in Kyoto

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

Bicycles in Kyoto

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

One thing that no one mentioned to me during my inquiries into Kyoto were the bicycles. Most of Japan seemed to be suited to bicycles but Kyoto seemed more suited than most. For about $10 a day you can rent a bike and get to nearly every corner of Kyoto, if you are up for the distance (it’s a flat easy ride), and battling the traffic of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians whose natural inclination is to go left when yours is to go right.

As we peddled through traffic chanting to ourselves, keep to the left, keep to the left, simply trying not to die or cause any major accidents, we watched as teenagers cruised by texting their friends on their cell phones, with their girlfriends riding on the back, balanced precariously, wearing high heels boots and a mini skirt looking as cool and collected as if they were sitting on a bar stool. While texting.

* Grandmothers, baskets on the front and back of their bikes piled high with shopping.

* Parents with children riding in seats on the front and/or back of their bikes.

All this weaving through traffic that involved trucks, cars, scooters as well as oncoming bicycles and pedestrians. Sometimes it was required that you pass an oncoming bicycle when there seemed to be exactly enough room for you to pass with .. oh, and inch or two between you. They of course did that while continuing to text. I did it while shitting my pants.

After awhile, Scott did figure out that there was somewhat of a loosely followed structure, but even following that, while chanting “stay to the left”, my part in it as a white person seemed to be to mess it all up.

Even when I did stay to the left, they would see an oncoming whitey and assume I was going to go to the right. So then they head to the right as I’m heading to the left, there’s a near collision and I wobble, heart pounding and nearly run into someone.

Rinse and repeat.

Yeah, when you go to Kyoto, rent a bike! It’s Fun!

Grrrrr… ummm… yum! Kyo-ryori!

Thursday, October 27th, 2005


Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

OK, I had SUCH a hard time figuring out which image to use for this post. I really suggest you surf over to
flickr to look at the rest

This was our first kyo-ryori experience, graciously set up by our ryokan hosts at a restaurant called Manshige. Our hosts drove us to the restaurant and stopped the car at the end of a long dramatically lit and beautfuilly landscaped walkway. At the end of the walkway, a beautiful, traditionally dressed Japanese women waited for us; she was to be our host for the evening.

Our ryokan hostess ran, in the way a Japanese women dressed in traditional dress and shoes can run – more of an adorable shuffle really – to the end of the hall ahead of us to be there to introduce us to her.

We removed our shoes and were led to a HUGE Japanese style dining room, about 12-14 tatami mats in size. In the very center of the room there was a table for two set and waiting for us. Our dinner hostess seated us and took our coats, leaving us alone, saucer eyed at our luck.

May-haps we misunderstood the price.

Another beautifully dressed Japanese women, slides open our door, and kneeling, she places a tray on the floor just inside the door. Once inside the room, she slides the door shut behind her, stands, picks up the tray only to kneel again at our table, placing the green tea and hot towels on our table before letting herself out again in the same way, only kneeling and backing out of our room before sliding the door shut.

May-haps we don’t care if we misunderstood the price.

The food starts coming. It’s jaw-droppingly beautiful in addition to being amazingly tasty. The pictures are all rather blurry as I had to take them with the small older camera on the sly.

The first set of tastes, Kyo-ryori being a celebration of the current season, were tastes of Fall. In case you can’t make it out in the photo, snails are Fall treats. I’d not had snails before, surprisingly enough, and was feeling quite proud of myself for using the toothpick to careful pull it from it’s shell before slurping it down.

That first plate had four tastes on it and each was new and exciting and beautiful and set the tone for the evening to come.

While we are enjoying our first dish, the chef comes into introduce himself. Kneeling several feet away from the table holding several pieces of paper he asks if he may approach. We say of COURSE! He gives us each a copy of the menu in English, as well as a business card and a brochure for the restaurant. His name is Keigo and he is the third generation of his family to be a chef in this restaurant.

We are in awe. And suddently we feel even more welcome.

The menu is a page long, with very brief descriptions. Are we to pick one thing? No no no!! You are to receive all of them.

I’ve died and gone to Iron Chef.

Eleven tiny works of art come across the table, everything from sashimi and tempura, to a giant fish head. Each.

I could see the special smile on our hostess face as she gracefully removed the tops of our pottery bowls to reveal the large fish heads, complete with some mean looking teeth and an equally large eyeball.

My first thought was, damn, not even any rice to hide that under. I wonder if it will fit in my purse.

Scott and I smile and try to be as graceful as possible as we poke at our respective fish heads trying to figure out which part was edible. Suddenly one of the most graceful Japanese women I’ve ever seen appears in the room. She could be 40. She could be 70. Her skin is like porcelain. Every move is done with grace, style and intent. She doesn’t speak a word of English, yet makes it very clear that we are not being aggressive enough in eating our fish-heads. She dashes from the room to return with two more sets of chopsticks and she and our hostess gracefully de-bone the fish heads in nothing flat. It would have taken me an hour to do half of what they did in two minutes.

Then, we find that our new beautiful friend does know ONE word of English.

“Charrenge”, she says as she begins to pluck the eye from the skull. Good for the skin, the other women says and she helps Scott with his. There is really no getting out of this. We are shown the two non-edible parts. The casing, and the strange bead in the center/ We are given the rest to eat. It was strangely non-fishy. It was slightly jelly like, but didn’t seem to have it’s own flavor other then a slightly more intense flavor then the rest of the fish, as well as a hint of the sauce that was with the fish.

I’m not sure I would order it again, but I certainly have no fear of it, and actually feel rather proud. And I am no longer in awe of the snail I just ate.

Scott got an extra bonus charrenge, as the next course was… mushrooms. His archenemy in food form. A personal grill, with not little tiny mushroom bits in something else, but big huge mouthfuls of mushroom that were to be warmed on the grill and dipped into a lime sauce before chomped down like a piece of an apple.

About the time Scott was to start scooting his onto my grill, Keigo-San came in again to see how we were enjoying the meal, and to tell us how proud he was to have procured such a large selection of this particular treasured mushroom.

And to watch Scott enjoy the mushrooms.

I think I enjoyed this portion of the meal much more then Scott for more reasons then one.

After dinner, Keigo-San was kind enough give us a tour of not only his restaurant but also the lovely gardens. He also presented us with two gifts. A traditional Japanese fan with a poem his grandfather wrote about the restaurant on it, and a beautiful sake cup which will forever after have a special place in the Blue Room.

I can think of no better way to be welcomed to Kyoto.

The restaurant site (in Japanese, but has great pictures):

Kyoto Bound

Thursday, October 27th, 2005

8 great iPhotos

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

Too. Much. Luggage. We left one bag stuffed with CD’s, shopping, and things we just had no idea why we packed in the first place in Tokyo. Yet we still had an embarrassing amount of luggage. Later in the trip we would find out that it was MUCH more embarrassing then we realized. Turns out that Japan has an un-advertised service in which any hotel or Ryokan will ship your bags to your next hotel where they will be waiting in your room when you check in.

For about $10-$15 dollars.

Ok. Re-reading that, I have realized that you might have no idea why we would want to pay for that. Let me explain.

* Our weight in luggage.
* Public Transportation.
* Many Many Stairs.
* All the above while lost.

Not to mention that you can ship your shopping to your final destination and have it waiting in your room when you arrive. Had I known that, some of you might have received presents.

Heh. Sorry.

So, we arrive in Kyoto after a 160-minute train ride through the beautiful Japanese country side, thanking the Japan Rail Pass all the way while munching on an ekiben (Japanese lunch box for the train) filled with fairly unrecognizable food. I did recognize the rice of course, but even that tasted different. We arrive rested and relaxed and looking forward to Kyoto.

We wrestle our luggage to street level and Scott takes out the papers for our fabulous Ryokan. He flips through them. There is no map, simply a note that the ryokan is 8 minutes walk from the station.

No idea which way.

The street names are all in Kanji so it doesn’t much matter if we have a map. We call the ryokan. The owner speaks a little English and tells us to walk away from the park. Or maybe it was along the park. Can’t tell.

Hmm… We use the San Filippo super power (which does indeed work overseas) and grab a cab. We call the Ryokan and have the man speak with the cab driver.

Turns out it was away from the park. But not in the way we thought.

We arrive at the ryokan and watch helplessly as the ryokan owners grab our suitcases and struggle to get them to our room for us. They look horribly out of place in our beautiful japanese style room.

Our hosts are amazingly helpful when we ask about a resturant for dinner. We had read about the Kyoto style cuisine, Kyo-ryori, but also heard that it was very hard to get into a decent place, and that if you could, that it would be very expensive. Oh, and that most don’t serve foreigners. We didn’t even dream we would get the dinner we ended up with. I’ll address it in a separate post.

After we were settled, we took a walk around our neighborhood. Upon arriving it actually looked a bit … suburban, but once we went out and started walking around we realized there was an amazing find around every corner. And in every alley.

Our first find was the Temple of Sports. Sports that involve balls. Yes, you read that right. A temple that is dedicated not only to sports, but JUST to the sports that involve balls. A large collection of baseballs, soccer balls, and the like were displayed. As we are marvelling at the sanctity of the temple, a man comes barrelling through on a bicycle cutting through the temple grounds with as much thought as I have when I cut across the parking lot at the CalMart.

This was also the night that we discovered the Japanese Coffee House… another kind of temple. More on that later. Now, on to the temple of food!


Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

6 great iPhotos

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

Real life has set in. We have no place to stay in Kyoto. We haven’t made our reservations. We’ve not picked up our rail pass. We spend the morning taking care of business with our fabulous Japanese hangovers. Afterwards we head off to Shinjuku to enjoy our last night in Tokyo in the Red Light District. WooHoo! Because of certain events, addressed in a separate post, I have to say, I have never ever felt so unsexy in a red light district.

We were finally offered entrance to a “Live Show” in which Gaijin AND Women were allowed. Most, if you could even figure out whether it was a strip club or live show – usually by the pictures (although not always) or the 10,000 Yen 60 minute sign – the only thing that would be in English would be either Men Only or Japanese Only. Not having any idea what the “Live Show for Gaijin and Women consisted of, or if it was a scam, and also still a little freaked out by The Incident, we decided to keep our 8,000 yen and wander on. Once we felt a little better, we had absolutely NO idea how to get back there.

Daijoubu Desu Ka?

Wednesday, October 26th, 2005

10 great iPhotos

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

We debated posting about this as it was one of the most unsettling events either of us can remember witnessing. In the end, we decided that we needed to know more about what was happening, and the only way we would be able to do that was to post, and perhaps someone can shed some light on this.

We were sitting in a restaurant in Shinjuku, an empty table between another couple and us towards the back of the place. He looks a little like a punk ass with a shirt open down to his navel. She’s just your average adorable little Japanese girl. We’re enjoying a little 4pmish snack and sake. The only person on staff who spoke English was the dishwasher who had been to San Francisco once and loved it. He seemed very happy to have someone to speak to in English. We continued our investigative eating strategy and ordered some bacon wrapped moki yakatori.

All is going swimmingly in VacationLand.

Then the punk ass hits his girlfriend in the face. Closed Fist. Full on decks her. It’s one of those surreal moments where you are fairly certain that you are seeing things. She’s covering her face, crying quietly. Rocking. He’s laughing. Smiling.

Maybe we didn’t just see that. Maybe they are playing around. Maybe she’s covering her face and laughing.

He grabs her by the face and slams her head against the wall behind her. Still smiling. Extreme Violence but he is so calm. No anger. No passion. Just matter of factly does it again chatting and smiling. We yell for him to stop. We expect the restaurant staff to get involved but suddenly they are all gone. Scott gets up and heads to their table. Almost instantly a waiter appears – simply to stop Scott. Tell him it’s ok. The punk ass asks Scott if he speaks Japanese. “Don’t get involved if you don’t speak Japanese.”

He’s still smiling.

The women is unable to stand. Unable to focus. Cross Eyed. Mouth bloody. Eye bloodshot and swollen. I invite her over to our table. She can barely make it. Punk Ass leaves. She’s repeating numbers over and over again, but we can’t understand what she means by them. 3400? 300? She says she is not ok. She is drunk, but… ? Punk Ass reappears to take her with him. Now she says she is ok. Punk Ass smiles and says something to us that we don’t understand. He says it’s ok because she is his honey. He wants to shake my hand. He’s standing over us and smiling in the same way he was as he was beating her. The wait-staff are trying to ignore us. Watching on the sly. Scott is looking for something to hit the guy with. She can finally stand and they leave.

Now no one will talk to us. The dishwasher won’t even come say goodbye – just watches us from the kitchen.

Is this the Japanese way? To ignore something like that? To not get involved? Or were they afraid of Punk Ass? Is there something else we should have done? Is there any way we could have helped her? Should we have let her leave with him?

Vacation. Where every night is Happy Hour and every morning is Saturday. And not always in a good way.

Tuesday, October 25th, 2005

Standing Bar

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

Today we decided to take it easy as our feet were killing us. We did a very good job of sticking to that until we met Yoko at the Standing Bar with the Little Prices. One of our best meals in Tokyo so far. It is in a basement packed with salarymen. The bar wraps all the way around the room with the kitchen in the middle.

And by kitchen I mean running water, a small fridge, a microwave and a deep frier.

Not only are Scott and I the ONLY foreigners, Yoko and I are the only women for most of the night. Yoko gave us our most treasured present so far this trip – a small note pad in which to write Japanese words we learn. It’s come in very handy several times already to ‘Order Another Sake’ or find food that we like again. Of course it’s best use so far is reading through what we did the night before because sake seems to have a mind eraser effect on me. Yoko taught me lots of Japanese that night, and I’d forgotten it all by morning. Of course, if we hadn’t stayed in the Standing Bar with Little Prices for 4 hours, then went to see Ichi-San at Temporary Sake for another couple hours, that might not be such a problem.

Oh, and this time Scott not only got digits, he got the whole girl. Somehow we ended up at Temporary Sake with one of the salarygirls from The Standing Bar with the Little Prices.

The next morning we did find that Soba was an excellent cure for hangovers. Unfortunately, we had superexpress hangovers and Soba didn’t apply.

Tokyo Fish Market, Asakusa Da Feet and Defeat

Monday, October 24th, 2005

Fish Market

Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

Holy Shit! Packed into the subwayon the way to Tokyo’s amazing fish market at Tsukiji. Full body contact with strangers. Adorable Japanese woman sitting in seat I’m standing in front of, resting her head on my hip. Can’t move. Scott irrated because we accidently bought JR tickets, should have bought subway tickets. Couldn’t access subway tickets until we got in JR. I think he’s more irritated because of the full body contact and the inability to drink his coffee.

As usual, we get of the train and are immediately lost. Finally follow a little man in rain boots cause it ain’t raining so we know he’s going to Tsukiji. Then lost little old man in the flea market/mall/food museum.

TONS of food stuffs on the way. Felt like Anthony Bourdain. Finally found other Americans and asked directions. Said it was quieting down. I’m not sure I could have handled it full on. Acres of fish. Scooters zooming through the middle. Live fish, dead fish, dying fish, every kind of sea creature. So much energy/activity. Amazing. Sampled Maguro. AMAZING. Wandered the side market and found someplace to eat sushi…. Maguro, Toro and O-toro (oh My). Scallop grilled in it’s own shell. Wow! Grilled eel on a stick was the most normal thing we had to eat all day.

I was trying to take pictures of everything, but it was hard to know what to shoot first. It was also hard to take pictures and not get run over. I brought my older camera so sometimes I missed shots. Wanted to go back to Akihabara to get a newer faster smaller camera but Scott is holding me back. Something about just having bought a new one … Meanie.

At one point I saw a big splash of water shoot out of a tank and went to investigate. Huge clam/oyster/shell fish tanks. I start walking away just in time to have another squirt water all over my bum to the entertainment of Mr. Oyster Seller. Aside from him, most of the fishmongers would have been happier had we not shown up. I’m fairly certain that some of the guys driving scooters had to use all their available will power not to aim for the gaijin. Some of them went ahead and aimed – but we were too fast for them.

Left for Asakusa. Lost again. Seems most days we spend a good hour or two lost. It’s nearly impossible not to. Finally accidently find what we were looking for. We pretty much gave up and paid to get into a park to see the bridges and gardens and Oh look. There’s the Ferry stop. Ferry ride to Asakusa. Lost in Asakusa for a bit. Temple. Shopping. Sesame Fried Goodness. LOST. Found. Lost.

Looking for a drink. Really. Just a cocktail. Bar? Anyone?? We walked towards the neon and found pachinko. Walked down the dark alley’s and found Korean BBQ. Fancy Hotel. $26 cover. Each. At 4 in the afternoon? I’m not that thirsty! Walking all over Asakusa. Gave up and headed home. Blue tarp bar also closed. Buy sake in quickie mart. It sucks. Really giving up. Going to bed.

My feet hurt so much I limp when I get up to go to the bathroom at 3am.

Kawagoe or… Burlingame?

Sunday, October 23rd, 2005


Originally uploaded by Monatopia.

Lots of fun figuring out public transportation in Japanese. We’re on the express, so we are either going to be in Kawagoe very soon, or… even further from it. None of our friends in Tokyo could figure out why we wanted to go to Kawagoe. I guess it was sorta like a visitor to San Francisco wanting to visit Burlingame.

Soon we are really really really really lost in what seemed like a deserted town 30 minutes outside of Tokyo. 500km to the temple. 800 km to the temple. 900 km to the temple. Are they kidding? We’re following the arrows towards it and yet still getting further away. We asked a cute little old lady for directions and didn’t understanding anything that came out of her mouth for the next ten minutes. So much for our Japanese classes.

Thought we were going into a lovely garden… nope. Graveyard.

FINALLY find the temple and it’s amazing. Pay 400 yen each to get in to the Museum. NOTHING in English. Across the way to see 500 carved stone monks. There are pictures of pretty much every one of them in my flickr account.

Adorable children. REALLY adorable children. Yam wedge fries. Yummy food we will never have again because we have no idea what it is. We can simply point, say kudasai, smile, offer yen and enjoy, or not, what we get.

Lost. Walking back and forth. Will we ever see Tokyo again? Finally figuring out useless map. Then realize we had not figured out the map, but had accidently found where we were trying to go. Heh. Oops.

Best Latte Ever. Really. Caffeinated, we are off to Candy Alley feeling like the kids in Willy Wonka. So many strange and colorful things to eat. Mmm.. and drink! Sweet Potato Beer! We do some shopping and my “otaku” (literally: Home; phrase: GEEK) boyfriend picks up some Japanese Magic Cards, and I buy several toliet toys with plastic poo in them.

We find a used record store called Hard Off (heheh) and score some Japanese Disney laser discs and a big bag of CD’s for Scott. So tired we could barely move, we got lost one last time trying to find the station home.

This was the most amazing, fun filled day that one blog post could never cover it all. You’ll have to look at the images on flickr.