Rose Fox (rosefox) wrote in rosefoxtravels,
Rose Fox
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2010 trip to Japan, part 1 of n

Ohaio gozaimasu! I'm writing this on Wednesday the 21st, en route from Aizu-Wakamatsu to Tokyo by way of Kōriyama. We're in the northern part of the country right now, passing conical hills and huge cloudbanks drifting over snow-capped mountains. It's been so cold here this spring that rather than being too late to see the cherry trees blooming around Tsuruka-Jo, we were actually too early... but I get ahead of myself.

I've been taking sketchy memory-jogging notes on my Palm Pilot. I hope to translate them into a proper narrative as I go along. My apologies if any of it seems to still be in shorthand. There are photos to go with much of this, but Josh didn't bring a camera cable, so I'll add them later when he gets a cable and has a chance to upload them.

For those not familiar with the cast of characters: Josh is my partner, Glory is his mother, Hiroshi is her husband.

THURSDAY APRIL 15

The trip really started five days ago (real days, not calendar days; Japan is 13 hours ahead of New York, so that calculation gets a bit tricky). I went to my various jobs and made sure everything was in order there while Josh worked from home and got the apartment in good shape for the cat-sitter. I left PW an hour early, stopping on the way home to get ham, roast beef, bread, and chicken and tomato salad as well as a bunch of meal bars to make sure we didn't get stuck with the usual terrible choice between airplane food and starvation.

Once I got home, we went out to dinner and then went home to pack. I looked at our schedule and divvied it up into five blocks: three changes of clothes in Osaka, four in Fukushima and Tokyo, two in Osaka and Matsuyama, four in Osaka, four in San Francisco. Each block got its own zippered plastic bag of the sort that sheets and blankets come in. Rather than count on being able to do l*undry at any given point (since the Osaka apartment has a washing machine and a clothesline, and there was no guarantee of sunny weather in April), I packed 17 comfortable easily-packed dresses and an assortment of tights, socks, and tops suitable for layering, as well as sandals for warm days, flats for cool days, and Crocs for rainy days. By the end of this process, I felt extremely organized and relaxed, which is always a good way to start a trip. Bag 1 went into my carry-on, ensuring that I'd have clothes for three days if they misplaced our luggage.

We knew we'd be bringing back lots of stuff from Osaka, so we originally planned to put my big cloth-sided suitcase into Josh's big hard-sided suitcase, but it wouldn't quite fit. Instead we left each one half-empty, which made them nice and light. Josh also brought his big camping backpack to check through, and of course each of us had the regulation two carry-ons. I tucked our big blue duffel into the suitcases just in case.

By the time we were done, it was maybe 22:00 and the cats were frantic. They know what the suitcases mean, and they don't like it. We spent the next few hours drinking tea, chatting with friends online, and petting the kitties until they calmed down some.

FRIDAY APRIL 16

Around 3 we did a last round of preparations, checking in online (I was amazed that United let us check in for the international leg of the flight) and figuring out how to fit all the food into Josh's carry-on duffel. Josh also made very sure to pack the two pounds of coffee he'd bought at Porto Rico, since he says most coffee in Japan is terrible and he didn't want to be stuck drinking terrible coffee for two weeks. We triple-checked that we had our passports, sufficient toiletries, and chargers for all our electronics.

The cab came to pick us up at 03:30 and we got to JFK right at 4... to find that the United counter opens at 04:30. We stood around in line with other early birds and eventually got up to the counter and learned that they would helpfully check our bags all the way through to Osaka. Thus unburdened, we confronted the suddenly enormous line for security. Fortunately I'd paid extra for us to use the first-class line, so we were through very quickly.

To get ourselves onto Japan time, we'd planned to stay awake on the flight to San Francisco. Ha ha ha. Josh was asleep before we even took off. The start of the flight was pretty wobbly and bumpy, but eventually we made it into smoother air, at which point I conked out. I think we spent maybe four hours of the six-hour flight asleep and the other two eating. Getting to our gate in SFO was a breeze, and we snacked some more while waiting for the flight to board, which it did with classic Japanese efficiency and promptness.

I'd forgotten that I had ordered the dairy-free vegetarian meal until it was delivered to my seat. It was some sort of grain mush. I poked at it a bit and went back to the ham and roast beef. Eventually they turned out the cabin lights; we shut our windowshade and did our best to get more sleep. When we woke up four hours later, it was about 08:30 Japan time: perfect! All that remained was to last six hours until we landed. Josh listened to audiobooks while I finished reading Peter Benchley's The Island and started in on Stephen King's It. I read pretty quickly, but that sucker is a good thousand pages long, and I was maybe halfway through when time came to fill out our entry forms. We got to the "address" section and realized that neither of us had the address of the Osaka apartment, so I fudged a bit and gave the name of the Fukushima ryokan.

SATURDAY APRIL 17

We arrived in Osaka around 14:20, half an hour early. That half hour was quickly eaten up by the very long line for customs, and this time there was no way to bypass it. I kept reading until it was time for me to be photographed, fingerprinted, and waved through to baggage claim. Our bags were coming around the curve of the conveyor belt just as we got there, so I ran over and hauled them off. We emerged and headed over to the currency exchange to turn our U.S. cash into yen and look for Glory, whose flight from Tokyo was supposed to have arrived just minutes after ours. A few minutes later I spotted her heading our way. She explained that her flight had actually been twenty minutes late, so the timing worked out perfectly.

The next stop was the Japan Rail office to get our rail passes, followed by a quick commuter train trip to Tennōji, the closest major stop to the apartment. While on the train, Glory discovered that her map book had vanished from her luggage, which made us all very sad; there wasn't any truly vital information in there, but it contained many notes from many trips. Otherwise all was entirely uneventful. We somehow managed to haul all of our luggage onto and off of the train and then fit it and ourselves into a taxi. Arriving at the apartment, Glory rummaged for the keys... and couldn't find them. Eventually they turned up in her locked suitcase. We were all very glad she had a spare key for that luggage lock in her purse.

The apartment was musty-smelling, in part because the climate is damp and in part because sewage had apparently exploded out of the toilet at some point since the last time someone stayed there. I gave Glory a disposable glove (what, you don't always carry them with you?) and she scrubbed the bathroom while we started turning on the heat and hot water and seeing what supplies we needed to buy. I hung up the dresses from Bag 1 and set myself up in the one bedroom that has a real bed while Josh and Glory made futon beds in the two tatami rooms.

Around 18:00 we realized we were ravenous and went out to hunt down a yakiniku place that Josh and I had loved on our last trip there. It was easy to find, and we were thrilled by how well we remembered the navigation of the neighborhood. We splurged on top-notch beef, which was fatty but oh so tender, and grilled it over gas-fired "coals" along with an assortment of vegetables. Glory helpfully translated for us as I realized just how much Japanese I'd forgotten (pretty much all of it) and grumped over leaving our phrasebooks at home.

On the way back, we stopped at a little 24-hour grocery to lay in breakfast supplies: bread, butter, orange juice, milk for coffee. We went home and did our best to stay awake, but I'm pretty sure Josh was asleep by 20:00 and I conked out an hour later.

[I pause to change trains at Kōriyama; now we're on the Shinkansen to Tokyo.]

SUNDAY APRIL 18

Having gone to bed so early, of course I woke at 4, coughing from the whiffs of mold growing on the back of the closet in my room. I did my best to doze and eventually got up and read until everyone else was awake. We noshed on toast and tea as the sun rose. Thus fortified, we set up the air-cleaner that was sitting in a corner of the apartment and got it humming in my room. We also began preparing to loot the apartment, rummaging through cabinets and dressers to find things to bring home with us or give as gifts.

We soon got hungry again and ventured out, strolling up the nearby shopping street. Nearly everything was closed, since it wasn't yet 08:00 on a Sunday. We walked up to the Teradachō train stop (nearer than Tennōji but not on the main loop line), hoping our favorite little ramen shop would be open, but it was still shuttered. Mister Donut no longer has the beloved pastries that we lived on the last time we were in Japan, purple yam paste wrapped in crispy layers of dough and sprinkled with black sesame seeds; I vowed to learn how to make my own. Eventually we wound up at a tiny little place called Cafe Marguerite, which was blaring American hip-hop radio from speakers over the front door but was at least open for business. Inside they were playing old-time blues, which was much more pleasant. We sat at the counter--nowhere else to sit--and ordered from a pictorial breakfast menu: ham and a fried egg for me, ham-egg-cheese sandwiches for Josh and Glory. The presentation was lovely, with little bowls of salad, tiny cups of yogurt, and delicate glasses of iced apple juice. Rolling up ham and fried eggs and eating them with chopsticks is an interesting challenge, but quite doable once you have the knack of it. To our right, a trio of salarymen chatted and smoked; I'd entirely forgotten that smoking in restaurants is still legal in Japan, and it both weirded me out and made me a bit nostalgic for the smoke-scented New York breakfast counters of yore.

After breakfast, we caught a train from Teradachō to the center of town. I was still coughing, so we stopped at a newsstand and bought some cough drops. We later found that the newsstand clerk, perhaps annoyed at breaking a large bill for such a little purchase, gave me Korean change, which is pretty worthless. Oh well; I guess I paid $7 to learn the lesson of checking my change rather than just shoving it in my purse, which seems a reasonable price, really.

Hiroshi texted us directions to Kinokuniya, a huge bookstore, and we headed there to discover that they have bilingual atlases of Tokyo and Kyoto, but none of Osaka. All the Japanese-only atlases weren't really worth bothering with. We had to hunt to even find Osaka train maps. Given that the store is in Osaka, we all felt this was a bit ridiculous. I picked up a couple of pocket phrasebooks and a cute little book of mnemonics for katakana and hiragana (ku is the beak of the cucKOO bird: く; ni looks like a KNEE: に; ha looks like a capital H on top of a lowercase alpha-style a: は), and Josh got a charming traveler's restaurant phrasebook that explains a lot about Japanese food, so at least the trip wasn't a waste.

On our way out of the shopping center, we passed a yarn store. Of course Glory and I had to go inside. I bought expensive, gorgeous silver and black glass buttons for finishing my current project, and some lovely silk and paper yarn for a colleague. Glory got shimmery yarn for making a scarf for a friend. Josh was very, very patient. He got his turn when we passed a shop selling French presses; after much deliberation, we selected one with a pink holder that nearly matches Glory's hair.

Glory thought the giant five-storey Muji store was nearby, and the store clerk was happy to give us directions. The directions were, unfortunately, useless. Undaunted, Glory stopped a gaggle of teenagers and asked for help, and they said they were going that way themselves and would be happy to escort us. I found myself greatly missing our teenage friend Lorelei, who I'm sure would have been taking piles of notes on the girls' clothing, makeup, and hair.

The teens left us at a building that turned out to have a Muji shop on the top floor; it wasn't the monster Muji but we were happy to go look around anyway. It looked for a minute like their men's clothes might fit me, but they weren't quite right. I bought two kinds of tea and Josh got a neck pillow and a little six-compartment pill box. On the way out, we spotted a travel shop and I picked up plastic zip-top bags for our toiletries, since Josh didn't have one and mine had split in transit. I also found a little gift for my mother.

It was past noon and we were getting hungry and footsore, so we stopped at a random noodle shop for lunch. It turned out to be amazing! Josh got curry udon that was out of this world. My udon soup with beef was delicious. They came with little dishes of homemade tofu that had the texture of top-notch fresh mozzarella; I confirmed that I don't really like even very good tofu, and Josh and Glory were happy to share mine.

We walked back to the train station and went a few stops over to Doguyasuji, an old shopping street full of cooking supply stores. I was starting to get cranky from too much conversational time, so while Josh and Glory ogled beautiful knives, I went a couple of stores down and looked at wooden spoons. Amazing how much better I felt just from five minutes to myself! When Josh caught up with me, he bought two for stirring French presses. I also got a tiny plastic sushi keychain for a friend and reluctantly tore myself away from some of the most beautiful wooden rice bowls I have ever seen. I may eventually go back for them. They were only ¥540 and oh so pretty. What will I use them for? Don't I have enough little bowls already? Who cares, and no.

Now our feet were really hurting. After a few wrong turns, we found our way to the train and went back to Tennōji, taking a taxi home from there because the short cab ride cost about the same as three bus fares and none of us felt like figuring out which bus went where we were going.

The rest of the afternoon is something of a blur. I know we rummaged through more boxes, selecting things to take home or give to friends, until the mold got too bad and I started coughing again. I know I played a video game while Josh napped. I know Josh eventually woke up and we did a three-way room swap: his bedding into the smaller tatami room and Glory's into the larger, since she's sharing it with Hiroshi when he comes to join us, and then Josh's things into the bedroom and mine into the smaller tatami room, since he thought the Western-style bed would be easier on his back and he's less sensitive to mold than I am. We also packed for the next leg of the trip, which for me meant putting Bag 2 and a couple of layering shirts into my big backpack. I do so love being organized.

By 20:30 we were all tired and prone to griping. Glory fretted about it being too late and all the restaurants being closed; I snarked that she was the one who wanted us to pack before we went out because we'd be too tired when we got back (even though I knew she was perfectly correct in this assessment). Fortunately we're all adults and capable of taking deep breaths and going to get food RIGHT NOW.

Glory and Josh had been wanting to go to a little sushi place near the apartment, where the owner knows and adores Glory and Hiroshi. I was a little skeptical, since I generally don't love sushi (or most seafood). I wasn't all that hungry, though, so I agreed to go and try whatever they said was good, privately figured I could always have a meal bar when we got home or something.

I'm not sure how to describe the front of this place. It mostly looks like a run-down flower shop. From the outside you can't even tell that it's open, and there are flowerpots everywhere; this is a common outdoor decoration in that neighborhood Osaka, but they're so haphazard that they could just as easily be junk left out for the trash collectors. Then you slide the door open and walk in to find a beautiful counter made from a single enormous piece of wood, and tables up on a platform from which you can easily watch the sushi chefs behind the counter preparing your meal. It's tiny, but really well arranged, and we immediately felt at home there even before the chef came out to greet us with cries of delight.

Glory inquired about non-fish options and learned that they had beef--gorgeously marbled and laid out on the sushi bar for us to marvel at--which we promptly requested, along with two orders of shishito, little bitter green peppers with just a hint of heat. She and Josh requested an eight-piece sushi assortment as well, and chawan mushi. I was very skeptical of the chawan mushi, which Glory described as egg custard made with fish stock, so she only requested two bowls, one for her and one for Josh. They also split a bottle of sake. Remember this; it will be important later.

The beef arrived first: 100 grams of absolute top-quality steak, marinated in soy and sake, grilled for just a few moments on each side, and carved into elegant pieces. This was not a thick American steak, but a slender cut, perhaps a centimeter thick. It was magnificent. I dipped it into the little dish of salt and black pepper and nearly fainted with joy. The texture was indescribably tender. I think I'm going to be very spoiled for steak after this trip.

The shishito were also grilled and served with a bit of soy sauce and whisper-thin shreds of dried bonito on top. The shreds waved and curled in the heat from the peppers, always a magical effect. We devoured them with great delight.

The sushi assortment included toro, maguro, unagi, uni, ebi, ikura, a couple of pieces of whitefish that none of us recognized. I ate the unagi and pronounced it delicious. The rest vanished with almost alarming speed, and Josh ordered an extra serving of tako while Glory requested more uni.

Josh and Glory rhapsodized over the chawan mushi until I agreed to taste it. WOW. The custard was ethereal, and the stock richly flavored without any of the briny fishy taste that always triggers my "this has spoiled and I shouldn't eat it" reflex. Embedded in the custard were pieces of mushroom, fish, chicken, shrimp, lobster, a delicate little crab claw. I could have eaten the whole thing myself, but I settled for splitting the crab with Josh, since he had given me most of his share of the beef.

While we were savoring the chawan mushi, the server brought a single piece of uni sushi, which Glory thought was the one she had ordered. Then the server vanished and returned with two pieces of tako for Josh and two more of uni for Glory. Apparently the chef had sent the first piece of uni over as a gift. We expressed effusive gratitude.

Finally, we were given bowls of miso soup, simple and perfect.

Now I must zoom out from the close focus on the table, because while we were enjoying this spectacular meal, we were also making a friend of sorts. An extremely drunk man in a red track suit was sitting at the bar (just across the very narrow aisle from our table) with a shaggy-haired woman who seemed to at least be his close friend. They had been drinking steadily for the entire time we'd been there. Not long after we settled in and Josh and Glory were starting in on their sake, Red Track Suit Guy lurched to his feet and turned around to regard us with a friendly if unsteady gaze. He spoke maybe two words of English, and was so far gone he could maybe manage four more words of Japanese. Fortunately, a young woman sitting behind Glory spoke some English and was kind enough to help translate once she saw us struggling to surmount the twin barriers of language and intoxication.

Red Track Suit Guy wanted to know where we were from. Singapore and New York, we said. Ah, New York! he said. I have a friend who lives north of New York... uh... somewhere. Boston? Connecticut? No, no. Albany? No, no. It snows a lot there. Aha, I said: Canada. YES! he exclaimed. Canada! That's it! North of New York: Canada!

We cracked up. Our translator and her friends burst into fits of giggles. Red Track Suit Guy also started laughing, though I'm not sure he knew what was so funny. Maybe he was in that state where everything was funny.

Red Track Suit Guy eventually clapped Josh on the back a few times and sat back down with his friend. We thanked the translator for her help. The chef came by, said hello, asked after Hiroshi, was introduced to us, asked how we were enjoying the meal. We sang its praises in two languages and he bowed several times, looking very happy. He went back behind the bar.

The server brought over a bottle of sake and said it was a gift from Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. They turned around and waved at us and raised their glasses: Kampai! Kampai! I toasted with my water glass, since it was all I had. Everyone drank. Red Track Suit Guy got up and went over to the fellow sitting on the other side of Shaggy-Haired Woman and started talking at him. (I have no idea whether they knew each other.) Shaggy-Haired Woman didn't seem thrilled, but she busied herself with eating, as did we.

[Another pause. Now in the hotel room in Tokyo. Beds! Real beds!]

We reached the end of our meal and got some delicious watermelon for dessert. Glory felt we ought to repay the gift, so she asked the server if she could send some sake over to Red Track Suit Guy and Shaggy-Haired Woman. No, the server said, they keep their own bottle of sake at the bar and just drink from that. We also thought that maybe sending more alcohol over to someone so obviously soused would be a bad idea. Instead, I suggested we buy them some watermelon. The server brought it over and told them it was from us, and Red Track Suit Guy jumped up from his conversation with his neighbor and thanked us effusively. With some help from our friendly translator, he even invited us over to his house. Glory hastened to explain that we were leaving for Tokyo very early in the morning. For some reason she neglected to mention that we would be coming back to Osaka.

Josh did give the guy his card, and I took a hilarious photo of them together. We thanked our translator, who said, "Don't mind him. He's just... very drunk." I said, "Yes, that's the same in every language!" and we had a good laugh together before settling the bill and escaping. We stopped at the store to get sugar for the coffee-drinkers (Glory had thought there was sugar in the house, but it turned out to be artificial sweetener, which Josh can't stand) and then staggered the few blocks home and pretty much immediately went to bed. By 23:00 we were all unconscious.

[Here concludes this evening's portion of our program. More soon.]
Tags: 2010, japan
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