Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Japan Wrap-up Photo Dump

I'm not exactly sure how to talk about the rest of my month in Japan so I'll just do another photo dump, sharing the stories behind some of the photos I took.

I spent the past two weeks in the historical and Buddhist heart of Japan: Kyoto, Nara and Koyasan. Kyoto is famous for all the historical temples still standing in the city. Nara is home to a 50' tall bronze Buddha, built in 751, who sits inside what was, until recently, the world's largest wooden building. Koyasan is a small town in the mountains centered around more than 100 temples, some of which allow tourists to stay in them.

Here's the Nara Buddha that was cast in bronze in the year 751. According to Atlas Obscura, the initial construction nearly bankrupted Japan.
Today it is very much a tourist attraction, primarily for groups of school children. Nobody was hanging out and being particularly spiritual when I was there. I was mostly surrounded by 14-year olds taking selfies.

My favorite Buddha was this next one in Kamakura, just about an hour by train south of Tokyo. There was a scenic, wooded 45-minute hike to get to the Buddha. Of course, you all know that getting there is half the fun. It was a gorgeous day and I sat down and meditated for 30 minutes here amongst the visitors. This Buddha is also about 50' tall and bronze.

This next photo is of a women praying before entering a temple in the snowy mountains outside of Kyoto. The morning mountains here were beautifully coated in an overnight snowfall and there were few visitors when I was there. 

Here's another shot from that same temple.

I visited many temples with gorgeous gardens. You've probably seen photos of Japanese zen gardens with the 5 rocks sitting on a big bed of gravel. They didn't get very old to me and I enjoyed visiting many different ones. Here's a nice place for dinner next time the local Lama invites you up to his summer temple.

One of the most famous and popular sites around Kyoto is the Fushimi-Inari Shrine because of the amazing tunnel of these orange gates. I'm not sure there are really 10,000 of them, but there's certainly more than 1,000. Super cool and quite photogenic.
Which way to the Zen Buddhist temple?

Matcha green tea is a special kind of ceremonial green tea that is crafted with love and ritual. Here's a photo from a tea ceremony I attended where, over the course of 10 minutes, this lady prepared one cup of matcha. She said it takes 10-15 years to be a Master of Tea Ceremony, learning all the proper techniques for making different types of matcha for different purposes in different seasons of the year.

The tea is very smooth, thicker than a normal cup of tea. It is often served in exquisite tea rooms, such as this one looking out over a bamboo garden.

In Koyasan I spent 3 nights staying in a Buddhist temple. They had 8 or 10 rooms that they rent out to tourists and we could witness some of their daily monk rituals. My room had a nice view into a wooded area surrounding the meditation hall. It was a wonderful 3 days of peace and quiet, listening and deep thinking for me.

The food was amazing and vegan. Miso soup, rice, tofu served multiple different ways and far more tasty than I'd ever had, assorted tempura and vegetables served in ways I'd never experienced before. If I could eat like this every day I could almost become vegan. Almost.

There is an ancient cemetery in Koyasan and it was fun to walk through. It houses the mausoleum of the Buddhist monk who is called the Father of Japanese Culture because he created the Japanese written language (adapted from Chinese) and started the whole calligraphy craze.

The generous woman at the aforementioned tea ceremony who kindly translated my name, Kirk, into Japanese calligraphy obviously didn't know that I'm unemployed and homeless.
Splendid Success = Unemployed & homeless

Just a couple more things I need to mention. First, Japan has a weird sexual and pseudo-sexual undercurrent. On the surface, all Japanese are very proper, bowing all the time and being super polite. In the workplace they are encouraged to conform and it is seen as bad to stand out. One of the effects of this is these places called Maid Cafes. I had to try one.

You go to this cafe where a bunch of 16-20 year old girls are dressed up as maids. There is an extreme level of cuteness applied to everything. It's like Hello Kitty having tea time with a basket full of puppies.

The food is all cute and colorful, though it doesn't taste particularly good. Shocker. I ordered the salad and the nuclear green sugary beverage. It's hard to see in the picture, but the cheese on the salad is formed to look like little critters. 
Cute pose with love heart

Here's the nice picture card they gave me when I was leaving. The embedded photo is me and the girl/maid/whatever who was my server.
Cute pose #2: fists beneath chin.

The first 30 minutes was quite entertaining. Most of the 20 people in the cafe were eating alone, like me. And it turns out it was on Valentine's Day (I swear I didn't plan it that way, but I realized when I took my place at the end of a 20-minute line to get in). There were definitely some very lonely people who go to this kind of cafe for (completely innocent) companionship. More than one customer was playing a little children's game kind of like Hungry Hungry Hippos with their server/maid.

But after being there for 30 minutes I was ready to roll. It was one of those crazy cultural experiences that was super fun, but only for a short amount of time. I was the only non-Asian customer and it felt a little weird to be glancing into the lives of some very sad souls.

Lastly, I will share with you one more weird Japanese cultural experience. I spent 4 nights in Kyoto staying at one of those pod hotels. You know what I mean, right? It's this Japanese budget hotel option where you're room for the night is not much bigger than the trunk of your car. The place I stayed was brand new, though, and the pods were quite sufficient and cozy. This stock photo of the place I stayed shows the double-decker pods on each side of the hall. Each one is probably 6'6" deep by 4' high and 3' wide or so. There was a tv inside, and a fan, and lights with dimmers.

That's it.
I'm writing this from Shanghai, China where I'm pleased to be crashing with my buddy Mikko for awhile. I may use Shanghai as a home base for much of 2017. My first priority is to turn my business website into version 2.0, likely called Prepared Passing. It'll be an educational site for people who have a parent who is dying.

So I'm gonna crank on that for the next couple months. But I'm also excited to be able to easily visit places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, greater China, Mongolia, India, Nepal, Bhutan and on and on and on.

Asia is big with lots to see and at this point I have no schedule. Gonna stay until I'm ready to move on and do it up right.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Fascinating Japan

It's been 26 years since I was last in Japan. During junior year of college I spent the month of January studying economics with a group of 15 students from St. Olaf.

My memories of that time aren't that sharp. I remember living with a lovely host family in Tokyo for 3 weeks. I remember drinking alcohol for the first time (!) at age 20 when my host father offered me sake and beer. I remember the vast cultural differences that weren't due to financial reasons. I remember feeling like a prairie dog because Tokyo is a big city undercut by a vast network of subways. When traveling around the city I'd ride the subway. Then I'd explore above ground in a small area around the subway stop. Next I'd go back underground and then pop up somewhere else, never really understanding how the areas were connected. I remember visiting Hiroshima.

Our student group also visited Osaka where we toured an automobile factory and learned about some of the legendary Japanese quality control processes, like Kaizen, that later made their way around the world.

Since that experience I've been curious about the rest of Japan -- historic Kyoto, the Japanese countryside, the mountains and the skiing, the distant northern island of Hokkaido.

Fortunately, my buddy Mike scoped out the skiing last year and raved about the daily powder dumps up at Niseko on Hokkaido. So we arranged to meet.

Skiing in Niseko, Japan

Skiing in northern Japan lived up to all the hype for me. They average almost 600" of snow per year, twice that of the popular areas in Colorado, and more even than my beloved Alta. For a powder junkie like me that's just what I was looking for. Alas, in the winter of '16-17 the American West has been getting hammered but it's been a relatively low snow year in Japan. 

But Ullr was shining on me. In the previous weeks they'd actually had rain at Niseko, but Mike and I received back-to-back days of 6-8" and then followed with a third bluebird day.
Ullr, the Norse God of Skiing

Bluebird JaPow with Volcano
The in-bounds area doesn't have a whole lot of expert terrain, but the vast powder more than makes up for it. Tree skiing JaPow is the strength here and I would gladly return. There's a nice, and booming, town at the base of the Grand Hirafu ski area (one of 4 ski areas that neighbor each other ringing halfway around the big mountain). Lots of Australians ski here.


The other supreme pleasure of Japan so far has been the food. After spending 14 months eating the mostly simple cuisine of Latin America, my tongue and taste buds are thrilled for a change of pace. Tortillas and chicken have given way to noodles and sashimi and yakitori.

In Sapporo we visited the Sapporo brewery. Here's Mike enjoying the local delicacy Jingisukan (named after Genghis Khan). This food wasn't that great, actually, but the photo is pretty good. It was grill-your-own meat and vegetables. But grill-your-own? At a restaurant? I thought that's what I pay the professional chefs for.
Ullr eats Genghis Kahn
Yakatori is a Japanese delight similar to the Spanish tradition of tapas -- small plates that you order a bunch of and share with friends. The two sticks on the left of this platter are kimchi meatballs on a stick and were phenomenal. Yakatori tends to be fried meat (beef, chicken, gizzards, livers, etc) but can also include such delights as asparagus wrapped in bacon and spicy mushrooms.
Yaktori, kind of like tapas
 Behind the counter at a couple yakatori places...

The tab for the evening appears to be unhappy. Not sure why that is. Perhaps it didn't like the way I manhandled my chopsticks.
Check, please
The pork in this ramen dish in the town of Otaru, Japan was the best thing I'd eaten in months. As the Japanese would say, oishii!
Ramen with pork that will blow your mind
Visiting the fish market is always fun.

Fresh Fish
And it was at the fish market in Hakodate, Japan on the southern coast of Hokkaido that I finally understand why television food traveler Anthony Bourdain raves about uni, or sea urchin. I'd had it twice before in the USA as sushi and didn't really care for it. I tried it as sushi a couple days prior to this here experience and it was better than in America. But this fourth and most simply prepared experience was the one that will keep me singing its praises forevermore. Those yellow pieces of meat are attached to the shell by a little nubbin, kind of like how an oyster is attached. When in Hokkaido, you must try the uni.
Uni, or sea urchin

Drinking in Japan

Drinking is a big part of the Japanese culture. Many employees work long hours and after work go out drinking with their coworkers. They drink to get drunk. Because Japan has such a formal and polite outer shell of a culture, it is after work when people are allowed to let their hair down and say what they think. 

So in the spirit of multi-culturism, Mike and I decided we should try out a few of these drinking establishments.

The options are plenty, whether they be in a hopping main drag in Tokyo...

Or in a warren of small joints that only have room for 6-8 customers...
Mike looking for a drink

 Or a joint on the snowy streets of Sapporo.

And if you know me at all, you know I couldn't pass up a chance to drink at a place called Bar Boozer in Hakodate.
Mike patiently awaiting the opening of Bar Boozer

We returned later that night...

and were slightly surprised when it turned out to be a nice whiskey bar. So we helped ourselves to some from the Nikka distillery that we toured when up on Hokkaido.

We also had a few great encounters with bars that spin vinyl records. This was the first one, I think, in Otaru or Sapporo. The sign outside said Jazz Bar so we went in thinking there would be live jazz music. An interesting thing about Japanese restaurants and bars is that they make it almost impossible to see inside from the outside. The Japanese are very shy and private about their vices -- booze and sex. There were plenty of times when I opened a door to a place that seemed interesting, only to be turned away because they didn't serve foreigners (true: if you don't speak Japanese some restaurant owners just don't want to deal with you) or because it just wasn't our style. There was no live music here, but a great soundsystem and a hep cat owner spinning jazz vinyl.

Our most fun night (and most hungover morning) came at this place: Soul Bar Jody. It was in the basement of a building and surrounded by some of the weirder sex-type clubs they have in Japan.
This is in the city of Morioka, Japan. We walk in and instantly see a Prince record proudly displayed on the counter. Good sign. There's just the proprietor sitting behing the bar having a smoke and nobody else in the small room that could maybe hold 20 people tightly.

The gentleman owner spoke pretty decent English so we asked if he could play some Prince for us, seeing as we were from Prince's home town and all. He did and we ordered whiskey and beer. He had lots of photos on the walls of the bar and some of them were former professional wrestlers. I remembered that AWA wrestling, the professional outfit out of Minneapolis in the 1980s, had a connection with Japan. We started talking pro wrestling and soul music and then he put a VHS tape into his VCR and up on the screen popped the AWA's champion Nick Bockwinkel wrestling in Japan around 1984 or so. Awesome!

Do you remember Mad Dog Vachon? Because the Japanese sure do:
Mad Dog Vachon
More beer and whiskey flowed. Cigarettes were bummed and still no one else entered the bar. We had been there for a few hours listening to great records and watching old wrestling videos with this fifty-something Japanese gentleman.

So much fun.