#travel

An American in Japan Part V | Walking Nagahama

Even tourists with poor cardiovascular endurance can walk a small distance to see sights in this port city.

Nestled on the northeast corner of Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, is beautiful Nagahama. A 70-minute ride on the Biwako line express train from Kyoto, Nagahama is a mellow respite from the busy city. Best of all, tourists can enjoy some nearby sights on foot. After traveling twelve hours to Tokyo and then another few hours, it feels rejuvenating to stretch my legs and walk.

As far as setting up accommodations, Nagahama Royal Hotel is a centrally located hotel right on Lake Biwa. It features rentable karaoke rooms, several restaurants and a public onsen or hot spring bath. In fact, it even has its own indoor smoking room and vending machines featuring snacks and alcohol, so there is no urgent reason to leave the compound.

However, next time, I will personally try to find a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) with a private onsen because of tattoos.

Read more about how having tattoos is a real nuisance in Japan. 

When I become bored with swimming, singing, eating, and drinking, I decide it’s time to venture out and see the nearby city. Walking straight across the street from the hotel lobby, I see the sparkling waters of Lake Biwa to my left. All along the lake is a paved walking path with benches that provide a view of the waters and surrounding mountains. For moments I do nothing but stare at this beautiful scene.

Then, taking a right, I find a foot path through some hedges into what looks like a sports field. I skirt around the edges of the field and eventually find myself at a fountain where there is a statute of some kids walking in a straight line together. This is Ho Park.

Further on, I see Kunimori Shrine and Torii Gate. This Shinto shrine features a series of small doll-sized buildings with items inside. It is hard to see, but one of the items seems to be a Tanuki or monster Japanese raccoon dog.

The Tanuki are technically members of the Yokai in Japanese folklore which I understand to be malevolent tricksters. The Tanuki, as the Bake-danuki have adopted a more “harmless, jovial lifestyle focused on bestowing humans with good fortune and prosperity.”

Taking a moment of silence in the shrine, I attempt to soak up some of that jovial fortune and prosperity for my own life.

Looming up ahead is the pointed roof of Nagahama Castle and Museum. This version of Nagahama Castle that exists today is a recreation of the original 1575 castle built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi who is standing nearby in statue form.

There is a also a random cage of monkeys adjacent to a playground between Nagahama Castle and some tennis courts, northeast of the Ho Park fountain. This unexpected find confuses me greatly.

I scan the cage for obvious signs of distress or cruelty. The primates have a pouring water source, continually refreshed. Peering into their pink faces, I wordlessly inquire as to their wellbeing. It is difficult to connect through the wire of the rusted cage. One of them reclines atop a small dwelling inside of their limited habitat. No karaoke room. No restaurants. No smoking.

Seemingly acclimated for cold with what looks like thick fur, I can’t imagine they are enjoying the balminess of 97 degrees Fahrenheit and the one-hundred percent humidity of Japan in August.

Monkeys

Feeling a bit depressed for the monkeys, but also stimulated at seeing this novel sight, I move on toward the playground, the high point of which is a slide that looks like a loading conveyor belt at a grocery store. I can imagine sending boxes of produce down this rolling incline. Instead, I send myself.

Rather than the normal slippery surface, there are a series of rollers. I stand up and go down the slide on my feet. It feels a little like snowboarding. With a quick internet search, I discover it’s called a rollerslide. This is my first experience with one of these pieces of playground equipment and I wonder why they are not more popular. They should be everywhere.

Making my way out to the street again, I come upon a 7-11 store. This is not just any American 7-11 store filled with MSG-laden potato chips and Mountain Dew. This store is like a gourmet eatery. There are bento boxes of sushi, dried fish in whole form, expensive bottles of Japanese whisky, and so many other delights. I could spend tens of thousands of yen here and not even scratch the surface of my gluttonous appetites.

Then I assess the heat and the long walk back to the hotel.

Three items. I can carry three items.

I make my choice quickly, opting for a cold bottled water, a box of sushi that I hope doesn’t get too warm before I arrive at my destination, and some Hi-Chew candy. I know there are vending machines with more items at “home,” and it seems like a nice afternoon for a swim. 

 

 

 

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An American in Japan Part IV | So Fresh and So Clean

Visitors to Japan often discover a whole new level of hygiene.

 

The city of Tokyo has a population of over 9 million. To put it into perspective, that is about the entire population of Los Angeles County which is nearly 5,000 square miles in size, whereas Tokyo is fewer than a thousand square miles in size.

That is a lot of people in a very small space.

However, it’s not as bad as it would seem. In fact, walking around Tokyo, I often wonder, “Where is everybody?”

More importantly, I wonder where all the detritus typical of large cities is kept. If it’s there, I don’t see it. Everything is so clean.

As previously explained in An American in Japan Part II | Transport, the first thing that can be noted of Japanese public transportation is how clean and efficient it is, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind.

However, the true ingenuity lies in the restroom.

In hotels, the Japanese restroom is like a self-contained hygiene pod. It takes me a minute to understand what is happening. I step up into an off-white bathroom with a small door and begin to notice odd things.

I run the sink to wash my hands. It appears to be a normal sink, but as I turn off the tap, I hear the water trickling down, down, down. Where is the water going? I look in the direction of the sound and see a drain in the floor and a little trough along the wall. All the waste water must run down the same drain. In fact, I can see it.

Then I realize that the shower head is hand-held. Theoretically, I could take a shower in the middle of the room like some RV bathrooms. I imagine the cleaning possibilities.

You could literally spray the whole room, walls, floors and ceiling with bleach and wipe down everything and rinse like crazy and it’d be clean. Everything is fiberglass or plastic or some nonporous surface. I could completely sanitize this entire bathroom in less than a minute. I am stunned by the efficiency and I feel cheated by the American bathroom design. It is an injustice I cannot comprehend.

Then I look down at the toilet.

It matches the rest of the off-white materials of the bathroom and appears to function like a regular toilet but it is plugged into a wall outlet and there is a series of buttons. The toilet has a user interface. There is an icon of a bum. A booty. A behind. It is brown. This must be some kind of joke.

Hygiene

I examine the buttons of the interface in context. There is a green button that says STOP in English. The aforementioned brown button says BACK, and a pink button says FRONT and features a stick figure in a dress maybe. Both of them appear to have water spraying at them.

It becomes clear that the toilet also functions as a bidet with directional streams of water that can be activated with a flush. Is the water clean? Is this sanitary? I am skeptical at first. But after a few days in Japan, I get used to this new functionality and my skepticism turns to jealousy at this superior technology.

Additionally, some toilets are equipped with speakers that play bird noises or a neverending flush sound to help mask the other sounds occurring nearby. Apparently bathroomgoers were repeatedly flushing the toilet and wasting large amounts of water so that sound equipment had to be installed as a safeguard.

Of course, some restrooms still have the old school toilets that just look like a urinal built into the floor. I don’t understand how folks without the extreme quadriceps of professional skiers can use these, but they do.

In addition to next-generation bathroom technology, Japan also has onsen hot spring culture which puts a high premium on cleanliness of body and spirituality.

For individuals who appreciate hygiene, Japan is a great destination.

 

 

 

 

An American in Japan Part III | Eat It

Exploring food and drink in the land of fermented soybeans, pregnant fish, and Pocari Sweat.

 

Conveniently located next to Osaka Station is the Daimaru Umeda Food Hall. Sushi, bento boxes, freshly made salads, side dishes, candies, and bakery items, are all attractively displayed for purchase.

Japanese cuisine is something I’m still trying to figure out. There is a lot of fish, even for breakfast. There is natto, which is fermented soybeans. It looks like a gooey peanut butter rice krispies treat but tastes like a ball of wet socks left overnight in a Ziplock bag.

I’ve even tried Shishamo which are small, dried pregnant fish. Most of the things I think of as Japanese foods are fancy, not everyday fare. Sushi is for special occasions. There are a lot of pickled vegetables, miso soup, and green tea.

Food

Vending machines are everywhere and often carry interesting and colorful drinks in interesting and colorful packaging like Ramune soda which is in a glass bottle and sealed with a marble. There is also Pocari Sweat which replaces human…sweat.

I choose a shrimp tempura maki roll, before some donuts catch my eye.

“Sumimasen,” I say, smiling at the clerk. She responds back in a stream of words in Japanese that I don’t understand.

“Ohayo,” I continue, uttering the customary before-noon greeting. “Onegai shimasu,” I say, pointing to one of the donuts in the case.

The clerk smiles at me and pulls out the bakery, holding it up. “Hai,” I nod. “Arigato gozai masu.” I hand her a 100 yen coin and bow as she gives me the change. I have successfully purchased a donut and according to her social cues, I haven’t said anything weird.

I wander past more food and up a flight of stairs, through an upscale boutique. My stomach growls. Where are the tables?

Finally, I gesture to an employee. I don’t know the Japanese word for table.

“Table?” I ask. She shakes her head and frowns.

I switch to mime. Pretending to open my bag, I hold an invisible fork up to my mouth, chewing air. Then I squat down to sit on an imaginary bench. Other shoppers glance at me curiously. Another woman walks up and says something to the clerk.

“Oh!” she says, realizing what I want. Then frowns and shakes her head. They are both shaking their heads at me.

All that food and no place to eat it?

I walk out toward the building directory. There’s nobody around so I sit on the cement floor and open my food for real, still wondering where everyone else went to eat. On a train? Do they go home? Is it wrong to eat in public?

I shrug and clasp a piece of sushi between two chopsticks and eat it. Delicious!

An American in Japan Part II | Transport

While a tourist in Japan can take many different forms of transportation, some are more entertaining than others.

Arriving at Tokyo Haneda Airport, I board the first train toward the upscale Ginza shopping district via the Keikyu-Kuko Rapid-Limited Express.

The first thing that can be noted of Japanese trains is how clean and efficient they are, especially compared to the train systems of major American cities like Chicago or New York. There is no yelling, or busking, or sounds of any kind. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one speaks.

Our particular group is made up of my extended family, including in-laws, children, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Some of us talk for a living. Some of us have ADHD. Needless to say we have extreme difficulty blending in with the silence around us. We are almost always the loudest people on the train.

Navigating trains can be tricky. It can be made trickier when you do not plan your route in advance and it’s raining. We wander the streets of the tony Ginza district without umbrellas for what feels like hours trying to find our hotel. My hair is soaked. My glasses are fogged. One man laughs at us and takes pictures. I imagine us as unwitting stars of Japan’s Funniest Home Videos, or at least a series of internet memes.

One of the best ways to see Tokyo and the surrounding area is by bus. After drying off and resting, we take the Hato Bus Tour to Mount Fuji. The expedition promises ten hours of delightful bus riding. This is after twelve hours of delightful plane riding, followed by three hours of delightful train riding for the previous two days.

Fortunately the jet lag is not severe and the host of our bus tour, Fumi, is full of interesting facts about Japan. Since there is nothing else to do but look out the window and listen, I learn a lot.

Transportation

En route to Mt. Fuji, Fumi provides us with key statistics on the current labor shortage, describing Japan as a “super-aging society.” Twenty-five percent of the population is elderly. Also, the birthrate before WWII was 4.3, whereas now, it is 1.4.

I also learn that Mt. Fuji has been worshipped since ancient times as a Kami for those who practice Shintoism, one of the two major religions in Japan.

Fumi also discusses early Japanese ukiyo-e artists like Hokusai, known for immortalizing Mt. Fuji in famed woodblock prints. One of Hokusai’s most popular works is the Great Wave Off Kanagawa. We learn this while driving through the prefecture of Kanagawa. I glance nervously eastward searching for any evidence of an incoming tsunami. I see mostly mist, rice paddies, and green rolling hills.

Reaching Mt. Fuji, we are told that we will not be able to see the mountain today because of the fog. I close my eyes and imagine Hokusai’s Mt. Fuji, its peak just visible beyond the great wave. A horse neighs. My green tea ice cream melts. I feel full of emotion, standing on an invisible mountain, in a faraway land.

On the way back to Tokyo on the super-fast Shinkansen bullet train, I catch a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, just a blur out my window.

Sometimes the destination is the journey.

Note: The picture associated with the blog is some type of cart that was parked at the 5th station of Mt. Fuji. There were horses nearby which, I assume, are used to pull the cart. 

An American in Japan Part I | Cover Me

A foreigner visits a hotel pool in Japan and learns a lesson in modesty and skin care.

 

The sun beats down on my head as I scan the pool area of the Nagahama Royal Hotel seeking shade. It costs 1,000 yen to enter the premises even though I am a hotel guest. Perhaps this is an even trade for the customary no-tipping practice in Japan.

I choose a white plastic chair under a tree and sit down before surreptitiously ducking under my towel. I remove the package that I purchased at the Can Do store by the train station from my beach bag and open it, pulling out an article of clothing that looks like a pair of nylon stockings. I slide these nylons that are actually UV-protective arm bands all the way up past my bicep, one arm, then the other.

Remaining under the towel like a writhing terry cloth ghost, I shimmy out of my jeans, revealing my black-striped bikini and slide identical bands over my legs, up to my knees.

Now that I am decent, I remove the towel and glance around, sure that everyone is staring at my weirdness. They are not. In fact, many of my fellow swimmers have also donned hoodies, shorts, or arm bands rather than Western-style bathing suits to enjoy the pool, free of the damaging rays of the sun.

I am the only one with them on my legs, however. The resulting look is that of a dolphin trainer getting ready to do a Jazzercise workout.

Why am I wrapped in black nylon? Because I have tattoos on my arms and legs and apparently tattoos are so hideous in Japan that you cannot be seen with them. From what I understand, tattoos are viewed as a sign of a person’s anti-social intent. Tattooed folks are not seen as contributing members of society. They are possible gang members. They are definite pariahs.

SwimminginJapan

I currently feel the full extent of my pariahhood. Not only because I speak exactly five words of Japanese, but because I am the only one here with arm bands on my legs. I could definitely have skipped the pool entirely, but it is almost 100 degrees with 100 percent humidity and I need to cool off.

Also on the hotel’s premises is an onsen. This is a type of public bath fed by geothermal hot springs that I would really like to check out. But I can’t because…tattoos. And because everyone goes in there naked, there is no way to hide my shame.

I paddle around the pool in my black UV-resistant sleevery. It feels kind of nice. The water is cool. The people politely ignore me. My temperature needs are met.

And if I still require cooling off, just inside the hotel from the pool area are two vending machines. One sells beer, the other sells ice cream. I love Japan.

Tequila Tuesdays: TSA Stands for What?

It was the shortest airport security line I had ever seen. That should have been my clue that something was amiss.

There have been a few airline incidents lately where passengers, or in some case, potential passengers, have been treated less-than-stellar. With that in mind, I will share a fun anecdote from a recent flight of mine.

IMG_2574

I was going through security, minding my own business when something truly unexpected happened. After setting off the nuclear-radiation, full-body molecular scan sensor, I was herded over to a giant man who growled something indistinguishable.

Suddenly a lady appeared and groped my crotchal area noting that my pants were “saggy.”

“Well, you took my belt,” I offered helpfully.

She asked if I wanted to go someplace private. I figured the genital exam would go much faster, with fewer liberties taken, if I allowed them to perform it in the middle of the concourse. It reminded me of my last trip to Vegas – minus the cocktails.

By the time my clothing and personal effects were returned to me in plastic bins, I wandered unsatisfied to a bar for two shots of Patron (not enough). I also ate nachos and my wife and I posed with matching sweatshirts in front of a Minnesota Twins sign for an impromptu selfie. A girl striding by this red carpet experience took pity on our contortionist routine as we struggled for the perfect shot and offered to snap our picture.

Some time after that we boarded a plane.

Oh, and TSA stands for Tequila Somewhere Ahead. Just remember that.

Tequila Tuesdays: I’ll tell you a story, often involving tequila. You can drink.

 

P.P.S – I usually post stuff European time because they get up earlier. Go figure! LOL 🙂