Who doesn’t love a country whose history has samurai, karaoke, love hotels, anime, sushi, lingerie vending machines, and Sapporo beer. I have been back to Japan five times, and already know I will be back numerous more times in the future. Tokyo seems to me to be the most massive city in the universe, stretching out in all directions. Going to the top of the Sky Tree, the tallest structure in Tokyo, all you see as far as the eye can see is skyscrapers. In fact Tokyo is numerous cities that all merged into a Megacity in the 1940’s. It’s an ancient culture that has cutting edge fashion, hi-tec business, and brilliant innovation. The culture has rules, rules, and more rules. But the great thing is I’m gaijin, so I really don’t need to worry too much about all the rules. But let’s be serious, the reason I have been to Japan five times is the best host ever, Georgie boy. My best friend from high school, who decided to teach English out in Japan in the 90s, and never returned. Fifteen years later, a lovely wife, and four kids he is very much the Japanese Gaijin.
He knows what not to do, when you can actually do it, and still apologize in fluent Japanese that no one is truly offended. He knows the ins and outs of Tokyo, places to get the cheapest steak, best sushi, and coolest bar. So really, he makes every visit unique and fun.
The first time we went was for the New Year 2000. If you are going to ring in the millennium, you might as well do it right in Shibuya, the crazy heart of the city. There is a statue of a dog named Hachikō that returned everyday to meet his master at the subway station everyday for 13 years, and is the best meeting point for everyone. New Years was one word, INSANE here. I wore my best mirrored shirt, and after more drinks than we can count, an amazing dinner with some of my best friends in the world, we hit the square. There was dancing, whistler balloons, crazy women, and me, the man in the mirrored shirt. I was the New Years ball.
Two years later I got the invite of a lifetime, a Shinto wedding, the first in which a westerner married a Japanese girl. Normally these weddings are immediate family only, but they made special exception for his friends. His wife had three different Kimonos to wear, he wore one himself, and a sword I believe. The wedding was at an ancient city of Takayama. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and during the winters receives a lot of snow. The ceremony was held in a Shinto Temple that was 100s of years old. Part of the ceremony is Sah-San-Kudo, translated 3-3-9, where you take 9 sake shots, representing combining of the families. Then the reception after was a lavish event with lobsters, tons of seafood, and various other dishes. Normally I would be all over the food, but I was too busy practicing a very important cultural tradition, pouring other peoples drinks. In Japan it is rude to pour your own, so naturally you pour one for your neighbor, then they pour you one. With a loud Kampai, you drain your drink, and then do it all over again. Out of a 100 or so guests, only six people spoke English, so by time you did three rounds to get to know each other, it was off to get to know the next person. Needless to say with all this getting to know each other, I forgot to eat. But what a night.
The food in Japan is some of the best in the world, I kid you not. Every dish we had was unique, flavorful, and indulgent. Often you will get a small plate, but man would it pack a punch. Just a small sampling of some of the amazing things we tried there. Pancakes that are a mix of potatoes, eggs, and spices that you cook yourself on a grill in the center of the table. The best we got were on a boat that went around Tokyo Bay. Of course these grills were not only used for potato cakes, but all kinds of meats, seafood, and pork. You cook it yourself with various marinades and some how it all is mouth watering. Then you have the sushi. Japanese sushi is like nothing in the states. None of the gimmicky things like mayonnaise, siracha sauce and cucumbers that we have here. It is all about the purity and cut of the fish. I swear the more expensive fish is, the more they know about the fish’s genealogy, and man does it ever taste good. At one spot they just kept bringing out small dishes like tapas, but each one an amazing combination, like beef negimaki, fish egg rolls, cucumber with tiny little fishes on it, and it all tasted great. I not a food writer, so forgive my lack of knowledge food descriptions, but I am a massive food eater, and it all left me craving more.
I have never been a fan of this, and you won’t find me in some cowboy bar singing about friends in low places. But here, Karaoke is insane and a necessary part of the culture, everyone does it. After many drinks, you end up in a private room with its own sound system, and your own personal waiter. The Japanese are masters at this, and even if they can’t speak English, they can still bolt out American songs like they were from Detroit Rock City. My performances at this are laughable in the least, down right scary at the worst. But no one laughs you off the stage, but applaud you like Bono just got up. So don’t be surprised if you end up leaving a Karaoke bar at 7 in the morning, walking out in the morning light with your arms around your new friends shoulders, singing Streets With No Name, while business men in suits run to their morning meetings.
Kyoto is about 5 hours away from Tokyo, and is an ancient city filled with 1000s of temples. It was the original capital of Japan for over 1000 years. We went to as many temples as we could handle, and it was gorgeous. Some were filled with an entire army of hand carved warriors, waiting to protect the afterlife. All the temples had ornate, traditional gardens around them. I love Japanese Gardens, where a formal garden is a perfect blend or nature and man. They are some of the most serene places on the earth. One of the temples had deer all over the place. Another had a waterfall that people would cleanse themselves in for luck. It was winter, snow on the ground, but people were dipping their heads in anyway. This is the place to go if you want to learn about Japanese history.
As we were at a 1000 year old Saki Distillery, where we learned that the best Saki was actually the core or the rice kernel, not the outside. Most Sakis in America have pure grain alcohol mixed in, which is why it tastes so bad. After the tour guide, who only spoke Japanese, went on for a good ten minutes on the distilling, fermenting, and the brewing processes of saki, it was George’s turn to translate for us gaijin, and with a big smile on his face, he said “Welcome to Japan”.