Monthly Archives: April 2013

Big in Japan


So, reality had hit by the time we made it to Japan. Gone were the days of sweating 24/7, guzzling 3 liters of water a day, and eating whatever we wanted because my pedometer said we walked 15,000 steps. After the cruel transition to a high of 11 C, we coped with warm food, soju, red meat and extra rice.  We also drank a bit more since we were with friends and Dave and I were feeling puffy and rather literally, “Big in Japan” when we left. I arrived with a preconceived notion of Japanese food was that it was light, very healthy, and delicate.

This is half true. The other half is fried, covered in mayonnaise, and consumed with drinks. Oops.

However, after months of rice, noodles, pork and fish we were really looking forward to more rice, noodles, pork, and fish but with a completely different flavor profile. Also soup. So much soup. We ate well in Japan not just because we spent two weeks in the home of a professional chef and a excellent home cook. We also ate delicious things out in the world which was fun.

We already wrote about one sushi experience which was good and fun, but we ate the best sushi of our lives elsewhere.

QUARTET OF TUNAS

QUARTET OF TUNAS

Obvi– Tsukiji market is the place to go for serious, fresh, I-am-making-really-inappropriate-faces sushi.

Ikura, sea urchin, and tuna roll

Ikura, sea urchin, and tuna roll

Seriously. Look at this!

drool*************

I had eaten some and forgotten to take a pictures of the whole meal — oops!

I miss it all the time. Because we were there on a weekday a ¥3,800 meal was reduced to ¥2,500 which we found to be an exceptional value.

go here

go here (sorry, blurry)

you will not regret it

you will not regret it

The chef was affable and engaged Brock in a bunch of chef bro-to-bro stuff and then pointed on a picture of a tuna where all our delicious things were. I’m sure that’s the chef fraternity handshake — POINT TO ME ON THE TUNA WHERE DELICIOUSNESS COMES FROM.

We also ate amazing food at “the Fish Shack” i.e. Nogizaka Uoshin which is where we took our friends (at their gentle suggestion) for a “thanks for letting us stay with you for weeks the least we can do is buy you dinner somewhere nice” meal.

Look at the menu:

.....uhhhhh.....

…..uhhhhh…..

Japan never said it would make it easy for you to get to this deliciousness. Luckily we know some Gaijin who have cracked their code.

I will forever think about this sashimi plate

DROOL*****

DROOL*****

and the scallop sashimi we ordered. It was absolutely insane.

DOUBLE DROOL***

DOUBLE DROOL***

We also ate awesome ramen during our time, and we hit up a few of the major favorite chains in Japan.

Ippudo, for delicious lunch special

they played jazz here #bougieramen

they played jazz here #bougieramen

Ichiran, to eat in a cubicle (seriously) and not speak to anyone. You order at a machine, fill out a form on the specifics (noodle tenderness, amount of spring onion, etc) and then a tiny window in front of you opens and the ramen arrives. This wins for BanhMiandYou-approved porny soup fav.

YUM! according to my wishes!

YUM! according to my wishes!

Dragon Ramen in Osaka

me getting my noodle on

me getting my noodle on

Dave being sad about leaving Asia

Dave being sad about leaving Asia

We ate delicious spicy ramen at “Ramen Stadium” in Hakata which was just about the only part of the city we saw since we got really sick while in Fukuoka and spent the next 2 days shivering with fevers in a tiny 10 square meter business hotel with a back-breakingly firm mattress.

After we recovered and moved on to Osaka, Dave was insistent we try Okonomiyaki (as was my BFF  in London! Hi DZ!) and we went to a famous place in Dontonburi and were blown away. Dave called it a “Japanese garbage plate” and it is sometimes known as “Japanese pizza” but it was delicious so who cares what is is?

hot on the griddle

half eaten

the cadillac: pork belly, scallions, veggies, jiggly bits and sauces

the Cadillac: pork belly, scallions, veggies, jiggly bits and sauces

Kimchi and spicy pork

Kimchi and spicy greens with scallop

Cabbage and other veggies are fried in a thin batter on a griddle right in front of you and topped with delicious things like pork belly, a fried egg, and the ever-present Japanese mayo. It was messy and we were way too too sober to eat it– it was definitely drunk food. Another time!

Dave was also insistent about takoyaki. On paper, this is like, Dave’s optimal food. Fried balls of squishy batter with squid inside and topped with BBQ sauce, bonito flakes and a bit of mayo.

Or –as you do– EGG SALAD?!?!?

WHAT?

WHAT?

He kept trying them hoping that THESE would be the ones that made him swoon but none did. He was gravely disappointed.

We ate lots of weird snacks. Some at izakayas: grilled meat on sticks, hilarious mix of Doritos and other chips, fried things and chicken nuggets.

haute Japanese cuisine...

haute Japanese cuisine…

snacks

fried bar snacks — a universal!

And as previously mentioned, drank beer. Let’s just say after we left our “Let’s squish in ALL THE FUN” trip to Tokyo, Dave and I dialed the booze way down. We were supposed to return from this trip SKINNIER than when we left.  There is no cute, peppy song called “Phatter than before in Philly” or “pudgy in Pennsylvania”. And I’ll be damned if this turns into a fitness blog so beers down, pedometer on, salad. Go!

…..

(here’s where I should confess we had Turkish clotted cream and honey on fresh [white] bread for breakfast…Turkey is a cruel temptress)

Takayama – Oldey Timey Japan & Ryokan

So after two weeks in Tokyo, we took our Japan Rail Passes and our backpacks and hopped on the Shinkansen (bullet train). Two trains and 4 hours later we were transported back in time to 18th century Japan in a town called Takayama.

This sums up all you need to know about Japanese trains. Salarymen get their bento box lunch and promptly pass out, dreaming of one day escaping the dreariness of their day to day existence.

This sums up all you need to know about Japanese trains. Salarymen get their bento box lunch and promptly pass out, dreaming of one day escaping the dreariness of their day to day existence.

Takayama is one of Japan’s many hot springs towns and a popular tourist destination for Japanese and Gaijin alike as it is known for having some of the most well-preserved Edo-period streets and buildings in Japan. The whole point of coming however was to go to a ryokan, or a traditional Japanese hotel.

At first I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go to a ryokan. Nice ones are incredibly expensive and, per usual in Japan, the language barrier is pretty intense. Further, we’d heard that those that do cater to tourists are often overpriced and not particularly nice. But we eventually decided that sometimes budgets are meant to be tossed out the window and, besides, it happened to be our second wedding anniversary so why not?!

A lovely river flows through this beautiful little town. It was a pleasure to walk around.

A lovely river flows through this beautiful little town. It was a pleasure to walk around.

Takayama turned out to be a charming, lovely place. Making it even better was that we got lucky and accidentally found ourselves there on one of their two annual festival days! There are dozens of giant floats that parade around on festival day on creaking wooden wheels, dragged by men in traditional dress. School children sit on top of the floats playing drums or recorders and occasionally chanting. The floats are hundreds of years old and they only come out twice a year for festivals. All other times they live in these giant warehouses that are located all throughout the town.

Here are two of the floats. Of course, this is Japan so there's also an armband (lower left corner) making sure people don't have TOO much fun. Gotta keep people safe from the unsavory element brought out by a parade.

Here are two of the floats. Of course, this is Japan so there’s also an armband (lower left corner) making sure people don’t have TOO much fun. Gotta keep people safe from the unsavory element brought out by a parade.

 

These things seemed pretty heavy. I would have helped but, you know, Gaijin probably wouldn't be able to pull a rope the proper "Japanese" way.

These things seemed pretty heavy. I would have helped but, you know, Gaijin probably wouldn’t be able to pull a rope the proper “Japanese” way.

So we had a lovely day of walking around the festival, but the true main event was to be our ryokan experience complete with its own onsen (hot spring bath). When we entered the ryokan, we were greeted by the owner, an extremely kind older lady named Mrs. Tanabe who, surprisingly, spoke a decent amount of English.

The entrance of Ryokan Tanabe. You feel soothed and relaxed the second you enter the door.

The entrance of Ryokan Tanabe. You feel soothed and relaxed the second you enter the door.

We removed our shoes and were shown to our room, which in traditional style was simply a room with tatami mats on the floor and no furniture other than a low table. This room is your bedroom, living room and dining room. You are served dinner in the room, following dinner your maids come (in traditional dress of course) and clean up and move the table away. They then take your beds out of the closet (which are, like, thick cushions that roll up) and set those up in the middle of the room. In the morning, they reverse the procedure and set up your table for breakfast. While in the ryokan, you wear your traditional Yakata robe — not just in the room, but everywhere. It feels a bit odd to be walking around in public in what is essentially a cotton bathrobe, but everyone else is doing it too. Kat was able to choose the color of her yakata, but I was given just the standard one given to all men. Bummer.

For relaxing times....

For relaxing times….

So, what exactly do you DO while you’re waiting around for your in-room dinner and breakfast? Obviously, you go to the onsen downstairs, which is the hot spring bath.

This is the men's onsen. Kat says the women's one was nicer.

This is the men’s onsen. Kat says the women’s one was nicer.

We had to do a bit of research before going to figure out how the onsen works. First, they are separated by sex, so Kat and I had to go to separate onsens. You go to the changing room just outside and take off your yakata. You then take a (very, very small) towel and that’s sort of a washcloth/genital covering (though most people don’t bother with that). You first take a little stool and sit on it (why you have to sit on this stool, I have no idea) and you wash yourself at one of the little stations which you see at the left of the photo. This is critical — you MUST fully bathe before you get in the pool, as that pool water is shared by everyone. No one wants to sit in someone else’s dirty bathwater. After that bathing is done, you go and either sit in this pool OR (and this was my choice) you go sit in one of the cauldrons outside which is constantly being filled with running fresh hot spring water (you can see the blue tub in the background). The tub was a bit tight for my western butt, but it was still really nice. We relaxed in our separate onsens for about an hour. Kat had a nice chat with an australian lady, while I had a hilarious cultural exchange with three Japanese dudes. They were REALLY surprised to see a white guy in there and they kept stealing glances at me. Finally one had the courage to ask where I was from and they were surprised to hear America. Thankfully, while the Japanese are super uptight, even they seem to recognize the ridiculousness of everyone just hanging around naked chatting as if you’re not.

So we came back to our room, clean and relaxed and feeling great. Little did we know that the true fun was about to begin. The maids came at 7 pm to serve dinner. Dinner was in the Kaiseki Ryori style — basically oldey timey haute cuisine, with over a dozen courses (click the link if you want a more detailed explanation of the food). This dinner was one of the most amazing of my life and I’ll remember it forever. The food was delicious and so unlike any thing else I’ve ever eaten.

Our 16 course dinner all laid out at once. Being true flashpackers we BYO'd some cheap sake from the 7-11 to save some money

Our 16 course dinner all laid out at once. Being true flashpackers we BYO’d some cheap sake from the 7-11 to save some money

 

These were little baby squid that BLEW MY MIND

These were little baby squid that BLEW MY MIND

KSK sez "This should be my life everyday, no?"

KSK sez “This should be my life everyday, no?”

Shogun DK

Shogun DK

Beef with root vegetables cooked at the table over a hotpot

Beef with root vegetables cooked at the table over a hotpot

See that sashimi course right there in the middle. Yeah, I got to eat that and you didn't.

See that sashimi course right there in the middle. Yeah, I got to eat that and you didn’t.

SAM_0974

Then it was time for sleep. Sleeping on the mats on the floor wasn’t bad, though I could have done without the buckwheat pillow. It was ok, but I think I’ll stick to a standard bed.

We had to be up at 7 am for breakfast. Breakfast was a less ornate affair and was traditional japanese breakfast, which was interesting but, to be honest, pickled fish at 7 am is a bit much even for me.

Breakfast is served. Kat clutches her iPhone as if oldey timey Japan might try to snatch it out of her hands.

Breakfast is served. Kat clutches her iPhone as if oldey timey Japan might try to snatch it out of her hands.

SAM_0981

This was some really strange miso paste that was cooked at the table over a hot pot. It was delicious but we weren't really sure what to DO with it.

This was some really strange miso paste that was cooked at the table over a hot pot. It was delicious but we weren’t really sure what to DO with it.

SAM_0980

After breakfast there was only time for a quick shower before we had to check-out of the ryokan and head to the train station for an epic long day of shinkansen train travel that would take us 1000 kilometers away aaall the way to Fukuoka in the south of Japan. Takayama was a cute town and the ryokan was an amazing experience that I recommend everyone do if they’re visiting japan, but one day and one night was enough. Time to get back to modern Japan and all the weird, wacky stuff that comes with that. More to come!

 

Remember what bubbles sound like?

I write this on the Shinkansen, the bullet train, going 300 km an hour. With my cheeks nearly flapping and the scenery whipping by me – mountains to farmland to a few houses to a small city and back to mountains – we are journeying away from Tokyo and away from our friends.

We spent two weeks with our gay BFFs and had a total blast being with them. Dave and I had hit a place on our trip where we (and I say this with love, and Dave would totally agree) needed a break from being just the two of us. It’s really hard to expect your significant other to replace the scores of friends, family, co-workers, gchat snarkers who you normally interact with on a daily basis. I am a serious extrovert and having only ONE PERSON to chat with was beginning to drain me. Dave was totally over my incessant chatting. If Dave had to hear ONE MORE WORD about my pink hair upkeep I think he’d probably throw himself in front of this train we are on. Why bother chatting? We practically had the same thought patterns. We might as well not even speak, sometimes.

We’d be walking down the street in Saigon and I’d be avoiding sidewalk potholes and absent-mindedly thinking about a certain Family Guy episode or something, and then Dave would ask “so…. Kat… have you heard about the bird?”, and I’d be like:

A)     GET OUT OF MY HEAD.

B)      UUGGHHHHHHHH. YES. HOWWWWWWWWWW

So, to have other people to talk to who think about OTHER THINGS! aside from Family Guy, when to turn left or right, stop here, do you have the key, where is your passport, are you sure it’s this way, remember that weird song we heard in Indonesia, remember that thing we ate that was alive, remember how sucky Melaka was in hindsight, aren’t you excited to leave asia, aren’t you sad to leave asia was really refreshing. Also they are real people with real lives and jobs. Fascinating, how quickly we’ve forgotten how to be real people. Southeast Asia warps your sense of reality really sharply. I am going to get punched  in about five minutes when I get home and just remark upon someone within earshot like we do right now.

It was just so easy being with our friends. Like old times but also like new times? Also how did we all start speaking the same way instantly? Also they speak Japanese so they were not only their normal fun selves but also USEFUL. They knew cool places to take us. They told us cool places to go when they were out in the world being real people. They had fun friends we hung out with. Not having to be the decider about every minute detail of the day was restorative.

Also, being with urban family was so necessary. These friends of ours, we don’t really know when we’ll see again and we probably annoyingly were all up in their grills all the time because we felt like we needed to squash a year’s worth of fun into two weeks.

And HOW.

Aren't these meat bags handsome?

Otters and wolves and cubs — oh my!

Most of the photos aren’t cute, which means we had a great time, right?

SAM_0858

SAM_0853

Let us suffice to say that we learned how to say “Beer Blast” in Japanese. Beer Blast is a daily open bar special at a friendly gay bar. Friendly in that I was the only lady there both times and BOTH TIMES someone told me I was pretty. #WIN

Also, for the uninitiated in the finer points of the Japanese language, it’s “Bir-u Blast-o”.

celebrate

We drank all the things, watched the “Moey Shambin” SNL skit 400 times, ate awesome food, and laughed until our cheeks hurt.

Izakaya Friday

Izakaya Friday

We picnicked under cherry blossom trees, sang karaoke, and made fun of how Japanese manic pixie dreamgirls walk pigeon-toed because the think it’s quirky and cute.

That is a rule worth ignoring

That is a rule worth ignoring

We watched 40 episodes of Veronica Mars, ate the best sushi I have ever eaten, and made sinful pizzas.

the remains of an amazing dinner

the remains of an amazing dinner

We also hosted a Passover seder and leaned mightily to the left.  Also I have a weird bruise on my knee.

Leaning mightily

Leaning mightily

I was like, hello?

The other fun thing about with our friends, was they have a great set up for guests. Their guest room was huge, and we had a dresser to put our clothes in. They also, magically, live in was that they dubbed “America Town”.

murika!

murika!

Once you got to their apartment complex which is full of Americans, you would know how to say “thanks” for someone holding the elevator for you. You could drink the tap water. I had a minor meltdown the first time I realized this was possible. and was like, “are you SURE?!”. THEY HAD A DRYER, with which I entered into a very real, emotional relationship. I would put clothes in the dryer and pat it affectionately.  I COOKED. In their AMERICAN-style kitchen. I made my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs immediately. I made CARNITAS. For anyone who has been outside of America for long, even mediocre Mexican food is impossible to find. It needed to happen, or else.  They had a French press and we had coffee every morning without having to leave the house or negotiate a language we do not speak. This was perhaps the greatest luxury of all: being able to caffeinate freely, to American rocket fuel standards. There was a STORE where they would come back with Kraft Mac ‘n Cheese. Frozen Pizzas. Tortillas.  FIZZY WATER! WINE!!!!! WHERE YOU COULD PAY IN US DOLLARS!

Being surrounded by so many small, simple, American luxuries that I took for granted every day before this trip and that I had forgotten about for five months came rushing back and I was overwhelmed. I was achingly homesick yet also having more fun and felt more NORMAL than I had in weeks.

Also they have a dog, which meant we had a dog for two weeks.

PUFFIN THE SOI DAWG

PUFFIN THE SOI DAWG

I took her on many a walk and she even snoozed one night curled up under my legs and I exploded with the urgency of having a dog of my own. Once we get to Philly, find jobs, buy cars, get an apartment and become real adults. Small details, really.

It was really hard to leave. I walked with my back pack to the subway station from their house crying (I like to think) dignified, resolved tears behind my big sunglasses and huge backpack. We weren’t just leaving friends but we were leaving a brief respite in America and it was so easy and fun to be in Japan during the day or whatever and then America at night. I ATE CHEESE, for crying out loud.

But more importantly, we ate cheese with some of our favoritest people in the world. And we have more friend times with the rest of our International Urban Family (IUF)  ahead too which I think may save us from our own ennui.  Ok, kidding, just Dave’s. Friends like Brock and Josh are the bubbles in the Monica & Chandler champagne  of life. Thanks, guys! xoxo

The future is here: and it is delicious

So Dave just wrote about how Tokyo wasn’t exactly what he wanted it to be. HE IS A FOOL A LITTLE. He suffers from grave ennui about 400% of the time and sometimes I have to give him a bit of an elbow in the side and tell him its his own fault that he ruined Japan for himself by over-googling. #sorrynotsorry

Handsome fool, but fool.

HE WISHES

HE WISHES

I for one am enjoying Japan. I am a rules follower and I have found MY PEOPLE. I now give Germany the full side eye. Yes, I am a full head taller than the lady people here and cannot talk to anyone aside from the words I learned  (which stayed with me, I was very impressionable) from a very special song from of “Big Bird Goes To Japan”.

I was all of seven when this came out. And it’s catchy! Dave pretends he didn’t remember this but has been whistling the tune now so I stand by it.

Anyway…. THE RULES!

Without knowing a lot of rules (i.e. when we were without our friends who speak Japanese and have lived in Japan for years on and off) we tried our best to be polite. Politeness means not calling attention to yourself so the tall bearded guy and the girl with pink hair can only go so far. We are like walking rudeness 24/7.  Politeness also means not offending the Japanese with your lack of Japanese skills.

Enter conveyer belt sushi – the silent meal except for “hello and thank you”.

After some shopping around (UGH ASIA WITH YOUR TINY SIZING STRUCTURES) we decided to console ourselves with some lunch. Out of sheer boredom, Dave walked around a little while I tried things on at Forever 21 (some things never change, whatever country you are in) and noted a place around the corner and after I threw my hands up in the air in defeat (Kat:0 Forever 21: 45) we walked over for lunch.

Except it wasn’t conveyor belt sushi. I coined it “monorail sushi”. Genki suhsi was definitely a blast. AND YOU CAN GO IN AMERICA. SO DO IT.

First, a kindly waitress points you to your seat and hands you your electronic check for when you are done. Then she kindly asked, “English?” and on your PERSONAL TOUCH SCREEN set everything up for the Western dumb dumbs. You could also order in Korean or Chinese if you are an Eastern dumb dumb.

Here’s how it works.

You place your order by touch screen.

Bring me all the things! IN MY NATIVE TONGUE!

Bring me all the things! IN MY NATIVE TONGUE!

You can order up to three things at a time to space out the ordering I suppose.Once you make your selections of nigiri, rolls, drinks, desserts, WHATEVER, you complete your round.

ALL THE TUNA!

ALL THE TUNA!

In a few minutes, one of the lights with weird little constipated faces lights up.

I'm sorry but they look like they need some fiber

I’m sorry but they look like they need some fiber

That’s how you know which track your sushi is going to arrive on.  RIGHT? RIGHT? I KNOW.

There are three levels of tracks. Your sushi chef knows what seat number you are at and sends it to you. At a good pace, a tiny tray comes along and settles right in front of you.

 

Right?! cray!

Right?! cray!

You pick up your plate.

Kat being excited about more sushi

Kat being excited about more sushi

And you push the little constipated face light to send the tray back.

Adios, plate!

Adios, plate!

THEN YOU SQUEAL ABOUT HOW AWESOME AND FUTURISTIC AND CRAAAAAAZY IT IS.

SQUEE

SQUEE

Not to mention, the quality of the sushi was pretty good. We had some RIDICULOUS sushi other places but on a scale from 7-11 sushi to Tsujiki Market sushi, this was like a 7.

Then we ate it all.

#sorrynotsorry

#sorrynotsorry

When you are done, you just push the check out button on your screen and bring your electronic thingie back to the front where it tells the cashier your bill and you pay.

For all this technology, though, they don’t take credit cards. Which makes me make a  face like this:

genki_logo_highRES_2

Genhki Sushi (locations in Hawaii, Washington State and California. Which probs actually take credit cards)

we visited their Shibuya location for maximum touristy times:

Shibuya 24-8, first floor

Around the block from the Forever 21.

Tokyo – Secrets and Lies

Before we get started here, I just want to put one thing out there: I really do like Japan. It’s going to sound like I don’t, but really I do. This is a post about perceptions and my preconceived notions. We’ll have a bunch of blog posts coming up about stuff that we love about Japan, but, for me, the overriding thing I am taking away from my time here is that this country is NOT what I thought it to be. I learned two of the most important things about Japan within 10 minutes or arriving at Narita Airport, though I didn’t realize it until later.

The first thing we did after collecting bags was to go to the ATM. Japanese ATMs are notoriously finicky about accepting foreign cards, so we were advised to take out a large amount of cash immediately at the airport. I followed the signs towards the ATM but was confounded by what I saw. It was not an ATM that you or I might know. Instead it was a HUGE machine, about the size of two xerox machines stacked on top of each other. It appeared to be the first ATM ever built. It had mechanical push buttons like you might find on an IBM terminal from 1984. So, Japan Myth #1 — This is a high tech, technology obsessed nation where everything is cutting edge and shiny and new.  This is not the case. This country is, in fact, pretty old and antiquated. People still FAX stuff here. Papers for our rail passes were filed in triplicate with eleventy billion stamps. The aforementioned ATMs GO TO SLEEP AT NIGHT so you cannot use them. Most salarymen, including young ones, still use flip phones. Don’t even think about using a credit card ANYWHERE because this entire country is strictly cash only (on the plus side, no one blinks when you use a 10,000 yen note — about $100 — to purchase a pack of gum at the 7-11).

After the ATM creaked its way through my transaction we proceeded to customs. There, a group of 3 young women were taking a group shot of themselves arriving. Within seconds a uniformed man with an armband came CAREENING through the terminal crossing his arms in a big X, SCREAMING at them to stop. You cannot take photos in the customs hall. Why? Because THAT’S THE RULE. So, I also quickly learned another few things about Japan in this moment: First, there are a LOT of arbitrary rules. Second, there will always be a guy with an armband (Heretofore referred to as “Armband man” or simply “Armband”) enforcing those arbitrary rules. Standing too close to the edge of the platform in the subway? THAT MIGHT BE DANGEROUS. Armband man will blow his whistle at you and make sure you’re staying safe. Want to dance at a bar? DON’T. Dancing leads to DRUGS WHICH LEAD TO DEATH. Good thing there’s a RULE AGAINST IT.

Rules exist to keep us safe!

Rules exist to keep us safe!

One thing that you’ve heard which is true about Japan is that people are polite. VERY polite. IRRITATINGLY polite. Our first day in Tokyo we went to buy some subway passes. We had a bit of trouble at the machine but then a kind businessman next to us asked “Do you need help?” (This was to be the first and last time a Japanese person was able to fluently communicate with us in English). We explained we wanted subway cards but couldn’t see where to buy them on the machine. He says “Hrmm…wait here.” I think “Oh! How NICE this guy is!” He goes and talks to the station attendant at the window. They talk for 3 solid minutes with lots of gesturing. Finally, the subway attendant comes over to us with a guidebook in English all about the subway system. He speaks no english but he takes us over to the machine that was NEXT TO the one we were using before and walks us through the process….even though it’s IN ENGLISH. Turns out that the problem was simply we couldn’t use that particular machine. We had to step 3 feet to the left and use that machine instead. Why couldn’t he just gesture to us “use the other machine?”

How you answer that question says a lot about how you view Japan. One answer is that he was just trying to be extra helpful to foreigners. The other answer, the one I take after over 2 weeks in this country, is that Japanese are convinced that their country is just TOO HARD for “gaijin” (foreigners) and they simply can’t do ANYTHING for themselves. This is repeated over and over again. No transaction is too simple that it cannot be overcomplicated by “helping” you.

I take this, perhaps cynically, as a lack of respect. Once we were walking in a park and a group of teenage girls walked past us and all giggling one of them said “hello!” Our friend answered back “Hi.” This set off an eruption of giggles and squeals and they all ran away tittering. These girls weren’t trying to practice their English. Instead, they were trying to do something just to evoke a reaction. Like a child pushing a button on a Speak & Spell. They weren’t trying to make a cultural connection — they just wanted to see the foreigner monkeys dance. They weren’t being cruel or mean or even rude. They just don’t understand why it might bother you. Of course, this bit of minor racism has its advantages. While it’s legal to drink a beer on the street, most Japanese people would never do it. Still, it’s OK for us gaijin to do it because, well, we’re just too stupid to know any better.

I was super excited to come to Tokyo. I was expecting it to be what every American thinks Tokyo is: A hypermodern Blade Runner like fashion and style capital where anything goes until the wee hours of the morning. Tokyo is not exactly that. True, that iconic image you have in your mind of Shibuya Crossing (that insane intersection with a million people and blinding neon lights) DOES exist…but it’s as representative of Tokyo as Times Square is of New York City.

Shibuya Crossing. From ground level, you can see the cracks in the pavement.

Shibuya Crossing. From ground level, it’s just another busy intersection.

 

Tokyo is more quiet, empty alleys than it is 6 lane superhighways with flashing lights and mobs of people. I’d heard about the craaaaaazy vending machines here where you can buy anything from beer and sake to used schoolgirl panties! Turns out, only things you can buy in vending machines are cigarettes, soda, coffee, tea and if you’re really letting loose, some ice cream.

After walking past literally thousands of vending machines, this banana machine was the ONLY one of any interest.

After walking past literally thousands of vending machines, this banana machine was the ONLY one of any interest. I’ve been told a handful of beer machines still exist, but we’ve yet to see them.

How did this happen? How did this Japan’s idiosyncrasies become its stereotypes? I’m not quite sure, but it does seem that tourists who visit here just want to revel in those things rather than find true, modern japan. They want to see cherry blossoms, a few ancient shrines and then look at insanely dressed harajuku girls and hello kitty and all the neon signs and exclaim “oooh, isn’t THIS a crazy contrast?!” No tourist who returns from Japan wants to say to their friends “It was nice! Not as crazy as you’ve heard. Kinda boring, in fact. But it was ok.” No. What people want is this:

SAM_0514

And this:

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Aaaaand this:

I'm sure she's ok, but she's no Girls Generation

I’m sure she’s not bad, but she’s no Girls Generation

Look, all those stereotypical things you’ve heard about Japan, they ARE here and we saw them and they were fun. It’s just that, for me, they don’t define this place. They give it some interesting color, but when I think of Japan,  all that weird stuff that you’re oddly familiar with will be the farthest thing from my mind. This country is really interesting and a lot of fun and definitely very unique. Look out for the next few posts where we’ll share some of the things that we really love about Japan: Friends! Ramen! Sushi — oh LORD the SUSHI. Izakayas (Japanese pubs)! Shinkansen (bullet trains)! Don’t touch that dial! SO MUCH MORE TO COME.

Busan – Culinary (Mis)adventures

After over a week in glorious, wonderful, amazing Seoul (Seriously, stop reading this and get on a plane. DO IT. NOW) we boarded the high speed KTX train to Busan, South Korea’s second largest city located on the southeast coast. When we left our hotel, the guy at the front desk asked where we were going. When we said we were going to Busan he said “Oh. Never been. Very far.” ‘Very far’ is relative I suppose because it’s only 2 hours and 40 minutes on the train (which travels at 300 km/h!!!!). Also, it only costs about $50 per ticket, so it’s not like it breaks the bank either. Oh, and there’s cheap beer and free wifi (TAKE NOTE, AMTRAK),

Whereas Seoul is cool, hip and sophisticated, Busan is grittier, though no less fun loving. The main attraction in Busan is the seafood market which is one of the largest in all of Asia and it truly is an amazing thing to behold. There’s also famous Hundae beach which is quite nice and brimming with life even on cold, gray days in early Spring.

 

Busan is incredibly close to Japan (you can take a hydrofoil between the two countries), so the city gets lots of Japanese tourists. It was gratifying (in a schadenfreude-y way) to see Japanese struggling to communicate in Korean just like us. A very fun thing to do is to eat at one of the many “restaurants” at the market (really just platforms with low tables where you sit on the floor). We selected one mostly randomly (it was just the place where the auntie that runs it was most aggressive about hawking us in), took off our shoes, and sat at our table.

Kat in happier times before we discovered the secret lurking in our meal

Kat in happier times before we discovered the secret lurking in our meal

We were handed an “English” language menu (what I often refer to as “The dumdum menu), which had some loose translations of some things. We decided to order the “spicy seafood stew” (seen on the left in your photo) and the “raw seafood plate” (on the right). The seafood stew was pretty good. Nice fishy broth, lots of shellfish in there (including 2 HUGE sea snails).

There were no photos on the menu but we just assumed that with the raw seafood plate we’d be getting some clams or scallops or mussels. Maybe some oysters if we were really lucky. What showed up was this:

Some seriously weird shit lives in the ocean, you guys. No joke.

Some seriously weird shit lives in the ocean, you guys. No joke.

There are two kinds of sea creature on this plate. I have no idea what they are. We later saw the orange guys for sale at many of the stalls in the market. Before it’s cut up and taken out of it’s shell it looks like a red oblong shaped ball with big lumps all over it and a long scraggly beard coming out of one end. The texture was kind of like an oyster mixed with a mussel and the taste was salty and briny with a bitter mineraly aftertaste. I love weird food and I will eat anything but, honestly, this was not my favorite. Kat had a few pieces and declared herself finished. She reused to even try the other sea creature on the plate (we’ll get to HIM in a moment). I gamely ate a bunch of orange guy trying to will myself into liking it, but I too eventually gave up. Also, it turned my tongue orange, which was cool but maybe not worth the money.

Now….other guy. It looks basically like a beige, unctuous mussel shell. It was really hard to chew because the texture was basically like bone cartilage. It had a slightly briny taste to it but honestly didn’t taste like much. Things improved once I put on a dollop of the ubiquitous red, spicy pepper paste that Koreans put on EVERYTHING, but it still wasn’t great. I ate a few pieces (and tried without success to force Kat to try one) and then gave up and focused on the stew. Kat at one point looked at the brown things and said “Um, I think one of them is moving.” I looked at it and it was NOT moving, so I told Kat she was just being dramatic and a baby about not wanting to try a new food. She looked at it again and agreed that, no, it was not moving…but she still wasn’t going to try it.

About 10 minutes later, Kat says to me again “I SWEAR that thing on the plate just moved.” I was still a bit miffed that she wouldn’t even try the (relatively expensive) seafood plate. So to prove to her that, no you crazy person, that thing, whatever it is, is NOT alive, I took my chopstick and poked one of the creatures on the plate. Well….the second I did that, the thing spasm-ed and wrapped itself around my chopstick. I could see on one end a little mouth opening and closing in a tiny perfect circle.  Kat yells at me, horrified but clearly pleased about being right (NOTHING she likes more than that) “YOU SEE! YOU SEE! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ATE THAT!” I am beginning to imagine these poor things wriggling around in my stomach, drowning in a hot dark vat of acid. I sort of felt bad for them. Then I felt a little sick. It didn’t help that this was breakfast at around 9 am. At that point, our appetites were pretty much gone. We paid the bill and left. I am sure the ajummas (aunties) that run the joint were puzzled why we even ordered the damn thing in the first place, but they were too polite to say anything. I am sure it was no surprise to them to see most of the plate left over.

With our stomachs fortified with living mollusks, we decided to take a stroll along the beautiful Hundae beach. In the summer, this is Korea’s top destination and apparently there’s not a free square inch of sand. On this cold, gray day there were still tons of people enjoying the beach, walking along in coats and hats. Teenagers played live music on the boardwalk (Always a duo of two guys, always one with a guitar and one with a bongo drum. I don’t know why) and families picnic-ed on the sand.

On a clear day, you can allegedly see Japan. The beach was IMMACULATE.

On a clear day, you can allegedly see Japan. The beach was IMMACULATE.

They’ve got a pretty lively boardwalk, which was only disappointing in that it was mostly just a walking promenade with no food to buy or carnie games to play (though just a block or two away from the beach, you could find tons of those things). They had some fun “interactive” art on the walls too:

This was a VERY popular photo op with little korean girls, teenagers and Kat.

This was a VERY popular photo op with little korean girls, teenagers and Kat.

 

No, seriously, Korea, this spider is making a TON of sense. Please, continue putting nonsensical English on everything.

A flowing future? Flowing with what? The life juice you’re about to suck out of my skull?

Busan’s a tough city to describe. It’s very spread out and, like, Seoul, there’s no single “downtown” area. There’s the beach area, there’s a going out area, which is something like a smaller Seoul but not exactly. It was interesting to contrast Busan and Seoul because it gave us an idea of just how much of an anomaly Seoul is. It’s representative of Korea the same way that New York City is representative of America. We were in Busan for long, which is good because there’s not a ton to do there. We packed up our bags and took the bus to Busan airport (with the unfortunate PUS airport code), had one last (pretty good, actually) bibimbap.

Farewell bibimbap. With a fried egg on top because, OF COURSE PUT A FRIED EGG ON TOP. DUH.

Farewell bibimbap. With a fried egg on top because, OF COURSE PUT A FRIED EGG ON TOP. DUH.

Lots of white people teach English in schools in Busan and the city doesn’t get a ton of white tourists, so people just assumed that we also lived there. At the airport when we checked into our flight, the lady at the desk asked with a huge smile “When you come back Korea!?” thinking we were only going to Japan on holiday. I told her, “Not sure. We’re on a big trip around the world.” Her smile faded and she said simply “Not come back? Oh….” And my heart broke a little bit. Because her warm, welcoming smile that said “I REALLY want you to LOVE Korea as much as I do. Please stay!” is something I will cherish and miss forever. Korean people are so excited for you to be experiencing their culture and they SO BADLY want you to have fun. We’ve said it over and over again, but it’s the people that make a place great. We will miss you Korea and I promise you, we WILL be back.

As a postscript to our Korean adventures because I KNOW you are going to ask, YES we went to Gangnam. Here’s proof:

The most unabashedly touristy photo we have taken yet. We snapped this photo and ran like hell out of the station because it was horrifyingly embarrassing.

The most unabashedly touristy photo we have taken yet. We snapped this photo and ran like hell out of the station because it was horrifyingly embarrassing.

Here’s a Seoul tourist pro-tip: Don’t go to Gangnam. It’s super boring there. It’s just office buildings and some luxury stores that are really spread out. We got out, walked around for 5 minutes and then got back on the subway home.

Day Bau Bau: a trip to Bau House Dog Cafe

Quoting “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” is a great way to pass the time when not working. Each day we have usually but one job: get lost. We get lost every day, much to Dave’s chagrin.  He gets very intense about maps and walks 5 feet in front of me when we are trying to GET SOMEWHERE. Usually a minor domestic kicks up– usually about how it’d be nice if he would walk with me not ahead of me–  but what else to be expected when your job is to get places, see stuff, get home, and eat all in a country where you don’t speak or read the language. WITH ONLY YOUR SPOUSE.  FOR MONTHS.

Directions are totally wack in Korea. Numbers on the streets aren’t logical so you can’t trust them. It’s all landmark driven. Directions go something like this. “Take this exit of the subway stop. Turn left after walking 63.4 meters then turn right at the 7-11.”

Sure! Ok! Seems clear but there are 40 7-11s and no left turns. Also what is a meter?

Such began our hour walking tour of Hongdae to find the infamous Bau House dog cafe. When you google it, all blog entries begin the same way, “we got horrifyingly lost until we found it. We’ll spare you from our plight — here’s a map”.

We looked at all of those. We had photos of them! But they all said different things. And we were so lost. So lost. We managed to cross streets without knowing it. We asked for directions. We checked the internets. Dave bought shoes (he needed to cope somehow) from the cutest little shop for hipster dudes who have his sized feet. In Asia, this is a feat (feet?) of glory. No hipsters have my sized feet there, which made me pout.

We passed loads of cute shops with fun names though.

Missing an "SLER" but ok we'll take it.

Missing  “SLER” but ok we’ll take it.

We almost gave up but I really needed to pet a dog. I was homesick one day and I could think of nothing else but petting dogs while enjoying a $7 coffee. This was our one job for the day and we were going to DO IT.

Then, after we walked back to our first attempt on attempt #5 from the subway exits, we saw it.

The sign! Which was not like the sign we were looking for based on the Internet. Which was not on the map a blog had made. I guess they moved?

Anyway, we found it.

And it was glorious.

only slender dudes apply

only slender dudes apply

There is a room for bigger dogs and a room for smaller ones. You buy a horribly overpriced coffee and some treats and can hang out forever almost.

To get there– as of our experience– take exit 3 of the station Hapjeong station.

Exit #3 looking back

Exit #3 looking back

Literally you will see an office building not 20 meters ahead of you. There will be a sign in Korean with a dog on it.

I imagine it says "hey dumb dumbs, this way for doggies"

I imagine it says “hey dumb dumbs, this way for doggies”

Laugh at how dumb we are. Turn down the alley. There it is. Should take you two minutes if you walk reeeaallll slow.

You too could make new friends like this.

new friends!

new friends!

It is pretty chaotic.

dawgs

dawgs

And you can tell the dogs are not the most uh… balanced, shall we say.

Much like their human friends.

Kat and her fav

Kat and her fav

Some dogs just wanted to chill with you.

beagle!

beagle!

Some enjoyed mugging for the camera (also the dog did).

mugging

mugging

Some enjoyed the attention from afar (also good since I was wearing all black)

purdy1

purdy1

Of course, the tiny, poofy dog found Dave to be an excellent vehicle for a nap.

chihuahua

chihuahua

And to soothe homesickness, a dog-twin of my brother Kevin’s dog, Michael.

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Some were better dressed than others.

sweater

sweater

To reward ourselves for a job well done, having found this cafe and all, we treated ourselves to fried chicken for dinner. We found the fried chicken dinner while trying to walk home but got lost instead. Figures. We managed however, to find our way home properly from eating fried chicken.  #winning