Japan, finally

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February 4th 2014
Published: April 21st 2014
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Preparing myself for the ultimate culture shock, I get off the airport bus in downtown Osaka. J., whom I met up with at the airport, has already been to Japan various times, making her mind less likely to be as boggled as mine. The hotel receptionist is the epitome of what I assume to be the Japanese corporate image that never wastes any motion, or emotion, for that matter. Our room is, well, rather tiny, but it's clean and we have our own bathroom, complete with one of those fancy Japanese toilets that you always hear about. I decide not to go overboard and content myself with the heated toilet seat. There is plenty of time to push all those mysterious buttons later on in the trip. A real delight is to see vending machines in the hallway, the lobby, and outside the hotel. You can buy all kinds of drinks, including dozens of varieties of tea and coffee, and best of all, you can have them hot as well. There are even various cans of beers in there. That must be what East Germans felt like when they saw bananas for the first time after the Wall came down in 1989.

In the morning, it gets even better. Luck has it that we find a cheap udon restaurant inside Osaka train station, just around the corner from our hotel. I'm amazed that they have sweet potato, pumpkin and various other vegetable tempura, all for a very reasonable price. The broth, however, is something I'm not so sure about. Most likely, it's not vegetarian, so I slurp my noodles, leave the soup, realising with a tear in my eye that I have to make a few concessions while in Japan. Either that, or I have to be supremely organised. For lunch, we seek out a vegetarian restaurant a few blocks off busy Shinsaibashi Arcade. We eat a very yummy set menu of mixed brown rice, vegetable and tofu-curry, salad and soup. A stroll through said arcade makes my head throb and my eyes twitch, from the sheer sensory overload. Everything is so cute, sweet, delicious, elegant, sophisticated, athletic, wholesome and desirable, including the people, well-tuned machines, conditioned to consume and represent. A few blocks away, we merge with the crowds at Dōtonbori, where oversized neon signs dominate and smiles freeze as everybody around us seems to take selfies or 'elsies'
Wedding musiciansWedding musiciansWedding musicians

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, Miyajima
(is that the opposite of a selfie?).

To experience the more traditional Japanese culture, we head to Osaka Castle, sight of many a siege and a battle between various clans and shogunates that no Westerner except the most seasoned Japanophile has ever heard of. For us dilettantes, it's at least architecturally impressive and stunning to behold. Plus, one gets great 360° views of Japan's second city. We grab a delicious black sesame soft-serve ice cream on the way to Kuromon Ichiba Market, where we eat okonomiyaki at a small yet famous eatery. I manage to convince the chef not to put dead stuff in mine, using the few phrases of my barely-there Japanese that are not merely for exchanging pleasantries.

The rest of the market features stalls selling sweets, cakes, pickles, fruits and veggies, fish, fans, souvenirs, but anywhere we enter, we feel some bad vibes and silent disapproval wafting across to us from the staff. Maybe they hate tourists, or foreigners in general, or are scared we'll talk to them in non-Japanese, but if you want our business, be friendly, or at least not hostile, for fuck's sake. After a while we realise we're not the only
Okonomiyaki, Hiroshima-styleOkonomiyaki, Hiroshima-styleOkonomiyaki, Hiroshima-style

...and all vegetarian, even the sauce, incredible!
foreigners present. Masses of Chinese and Korean tourists buy as much as they can of everything on offer, especially all foodstuffs, all the while being their noisy and rude selves and barely acknowledging the storeowners and cashiers, just shoving their money at them. Maybe that is what makes the market-people forget their manners towards all those who are not Japanese.


Next up is Kyoto, naturally. The train ride on the shinkansen bullet train is exactly 15 minutes. It takes us more than double that time to find our way to the hostel. I get exasperated navigating the frustrating local train system, which consists of public and private lines, all of which require seperate tickets. We drop off our luggage and head to nearby Nishiki Market, where we go a bit crazy trying everything they sell, including senbei (rice crackers), different types of mochi, tofu donuts and tofu ice cream. The first sight we visit is famous Kinkaku-ji Temple, known primarily for its breathtaking Golden Pavilion. With a history dating back to 1397, the most infamous recent event that befell the temple was its being burned down by a young monk named Hayashi Yoken in 1950. Hayashi had entered priesthood after becoming entranced with the temple's beauty, but had gradually turned obsessed with the idea that the only thing that could bring his aesthetic senses to perfection would be the sight of the pavilion going up in flames. After committing the arson, he tried to kill himself, but was rescued, imprisoned, freed due to schizophrenia and paranoia, before dying of tuberculosis a few years after.

We hope to escape the crowds by dodging to the next closest temple, Ryōan-ji, only to find it's almost equally busy. Ryōan-ji's claim to fame is its rock garden, with wave-like patterns drawn into the white sand with brooms by the monks. It's meant to represent the flow of water around the rocks, and the longer you sit there and contemplate, the more it starts flowing in your mind. At Ninna-ji, a temple built in 842, we marvel at the five-storey pagoda and the intricate architecture. But it's there that I come to realise that once again, I seem to be in a country at the wrong time. With many shots I take, I can't help but think, it would look so much more picturesque now if those bare twigs bore their cherry or plum blossoms.

Kyoto features 17 World Heritage Sites, combined under "Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto". Also, about 20% of Japan's National Treasures and 14% of Important Cultural Properties exist in the city proper, according to Wikipedia. You see, there's a shitload to do. Hard tourist work. We dash ahead to Nijō Castle, home to beautiful gardens, richly carved vestibule fronts, and huge halls. An interesting detail of the Main Hall is the aptly named Nightingale Corridor, with distinctively creaking floorboards to warn the paranoid shōgun of the approach of possible enemies. To wrap up the day, we wolf down huge bowls of tempura udon at a dirt cheap yet atmospheric eatery, the type of which should be found around the corner all over the world.


After a breakfast of massive onigiri and black tea, we go to Fushimi Inari-taisha, a shintō shrine renowned for its thousands and thousands of red torii gates scattered around trails all over the adjacent mountain. Each of the torii is donated by a Japanese business, with a plaque proudly displaying the name of the company. It takes us about two and a half hours to hike through the torii tunnels to the top of the mountain, passing innumerous smaller shrines, statues of kitsune (foxes), who are regarded as messengers, as well as overpriced teahouses and souvenir shops. Back at the foot of the mountain, we buy a gigantic portion of yakisoba, yellow noodles fried with thick, sweet sauce and flavoured with various condiments. That should last us for the rest of the day.

Another bus and train ride later, we arrive in Arashiyama, a district on the other side of Kyoto, where we visit some smaller temples as well as the famed and magical Bamboo Grove. In real life, with all the tourists and new school-rickshaws, it's a bit underwhelming, I must say. But if you're easily amused, you'll have a ball here.

The day after, we head to Nara, which is about an hour's train ride south of Kyoto. Nara's biggest drawcard is Tōdai-ji Temple, which includes Daibutsu-den, the Hall of the Great Buddha. The latter is, well, great and impressive, but more amusing to me is a wooden column towards the back of the statue. The column has a tiny hole through its base, which, according to
Asahi DraftAsahi DraftAsahi Draft

How is it draft is it's in a can?
popular belief, ensures you of enlightenment if only you're able to squeeze through it. We stand and observe for a few minutes, watching kids and petite girls successfully attempt the squeeze. J. decides to have a go first, and she manages to get through without too much trouble. But how am I gonna fit, seeing that I'm a little taller than the average Asian? Lucky I'm not fat, though, or else there would be no chance I'd make it. I abort my first attempt after struggling for a minute or two, basically pulling out for fear of getting stuck halfway. It feels like my shoulders are too broad to fit. I get up to see that a crowd has formed around the column, all Asians, all looking rather disappointed, some probably wisecracking about the white guy not being granted enlightenment. A small Korean lady comes up to me and explains in Korean that I have to lift my arms and bring them together as if I was taking a header into water. I have another go, trying her technique, and slide through like a charm to much applause and ooooooo-ing. I don't know if it's the enlightenment or the massive face gain but my head remains a little swollen for the next hour or so.

Another highlight for some are the numerous deer found anywhere around Nara-kōen, where the most important sights are scaterred. It may give off the feel of a petting zoo, but what those ruminants want is food, and they don't shy away from drastic measures to get it. They are really quite persistent, sometimes aggressive. Apparently, they even consider JR passes (tourist train passes) as edibles, as a pamphlet warns us that those have been eaten occasionally. The real highlight, though, is to observe the awkward behaviour of Northeast Asians around the animals. Some are downright scared, others buy deer food from souvenir stalls and get deer-gang-raped subsequently, a few want their crying toddlers to pose for pictures with the animals, yet others take selfies with deer on their smartphones. One guy, who must have a minuscule penis, treats them downright like crap and finds it hilarious to pet them in a very rough manner and shove food up their gobs while his wife and kid watch on in horror.


After a few days in Japan, there are some things that I couldn't help but notice: everything is neat and orderly, there's no garbage to be found anywhere in the streets. Strangely, there are almost no garbage around, so where do people put their rubbish? It gets quite annoying when you have to carry rubbish for a while until you come across the next bin. The air is surprisingly clean, I would have expected a lot more smog and pollution. Even the public toilets are quite clean. Also, it's extremely safe, you don't have to watch your back at any times. I've never had the feeling that I need to worry about my wallet or whether or not any of my backpack zips are open. I'm guessing that this is a result of the very homogenous population and that it's difficult for foreigners to come into the country or stay for longer and exercise any influence on the native culture.

Speaking of culture, I find it fascinating to experience a culture where many things are extremely refined. When it comes to food, every dish and ingredient appears to have a meaning and a distinct philosophy behind it. Architecturally speaking, in the temples and shrines, everything makes sense on an aesthetic level and all things have meaning, which is supposed to be conveyed through contemplation. This is in stark contrast to my home culture, where practicality reigns supreme.

When it comes to public transport, the trains are great, especially the shinkansen, of course. The latter is always on time, always super neat, comfortable and fast. I found it remarkable that train seats can have normal colours instead of crazy patterns, as nobody would even think of scribbling on them. The people on the trains are usually very courteous and considerate. Nobody plays loud music, it would be considered extremely rude even if emanating from your headphones, let alone from a mobile phone, that delightful habit of Western teenagers and drunk twats. That said, I found it rather annoying that on buses and trains, so many seats are allocated to the elderly (and disabled, pregnant, et al.). It might make sense, seeing that Japan has such a high population of senior citizens, but still, if you wanna sit down and there are no seats except those, it gets to you after a while. Also, those old geezers just love giving disapproving stares to people they disapprove of, e.g. me. They have their subtle ways of showing that they don't like someone. Usually you can tell by their body language. We saw it a lot with Korean and Chinese tourists, they really dislike these folks. These and other things give Japan the feel of a bit of a gerontocracy. Predictions have Japan's population shrink by 50% by 2100. At some point you'll probably have to start allocating seats to young people, as the number of 70+ Japanese will soon outweigh everyone else.

The one thing that shits me the most about Japan is the fact that everything contains meat. Everything. Even bread is not safe. You always have to ask, and not just a simple phrase, it has to be "Does this contain meat, chicken, fish or seafood?" and that doesn't even include beef or pork bone stock or dashi flakes, which appear to be a condiment in every single dish. If you ask whether they can prepare a certain dish without ingredient x, most of the time they won't, as they're too inflexible, or can't make a decision themselves without consulting the boss first. We try and eat at vegetarian restaurants, whenever possible, as nothing compares to just entering an eatery, sitting down and being able to order anything that's on the menu without having to worry. On top of that, at most of these places, the staff was taking a genuine interest and wanted to chat to us about why we're vegetarian, where we're from, etc. In one great vegetarian restaurant in Kyoto, the staff only spoke extremely limited English, but one of the kitchen ladies spoke to me in decent German. Always good for a surprise, those Japanese.


Our next stop is Hiroshima. We arrive finding a modern city that is considerably more low-key and chilled out than what we've seen so far. None of that rush hour-crap with crammed trains and suits running around to get to work on time. Naturally, we came here to see a different side, which unfolds before us once we cross a bridge to the tip of a peninsula, where we find what we've been looking for: the vast Peace Memorial Park, which contains the Peace Memorial Museum, the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims as well as several smaller monuments and memorials. Our visit to the museum
Hitachino Nest White AleHitachino Nest White AleHitachino Nest White Ale

World-class and not easy to find
can only be described as haunting. I've been to many places of similar tragedy, e.g. Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng-prison in Phnom Penh, the War Remnants Museum in Saigon, but I still find it hard to stomach what happened in Hiroshima. It's hard to wrap your mind around the fact that you're standing at the hypocentre of where some hapless man from the US dropped a device that killed 80,000 people in an instant, slowly killed 70,000 more during the following decades and wiped out the entire city. Even harder to understand is that the man, Paul W. Tibbets, became a decorated national war hero in his home country, lived to the ripe age of 92, and never expressed anything close to remorse, on the contrary, he said he felt only pride and sleeps clearly every night. I'm guessing his pride would not have been diminished had he ever visited this museum and seen the pictures of charred corpses, people with horrific burns all over their bodies or taken a glance at the rusty, burnt tricycle of three-year old Tetsutani Shinichi, who was found by his parents still holding on to the tricycle's handlebars and died hours later. He would have still
Asahi Dy BlackAsahi Dy BlackAsahi Dy Black

On of the best dark beers I've had
been able to sleep soundly had he read the testimonies of survivors who found their whole families dead, who went on to develop leukemia or cancer or had children born with microcephaly.

Another stark reminder of what happened almost 70 years ago is the Atomic Bomb Dome, the ruin of Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, which has to be reinforced these days in order for it not to fall apart even further and to remain in its current state of disrepair. It was one of the few buildings that were left standing after the bomb was dropped. Its shell has become one of the most famous images and a symbol of Hiroshima.

To escape all that death and destruction, we take the train and ferry to Miyajima Island, about an hour from Hiroshima. The only reason most people make the trip there is that famous red torii gate, the one that seems to be floating in the water (at high tide). We actually stay on the island for the best part of a day, wandering around, looking at temples, shrines and pagodas and taking in all the little quirky things that we find. At the fabulous Daishō-in Temple, there are many little Buddhist statues wearing knit beanies and scarves. Best of all are the statues of the 12 Chinese zodiacs, crafted with loving detail. We also witness a Shintoist wedding at Itsukushima Shrine, from where one can also get a great view of the torii gate.

The following day, we take the shinkansen to Fukuoka, where we hop on a ferry to Busan, South Korea. Thus ends this part of the trip, and hopefully the story of the next part will get to you soon. Cheers!

Additional photos below
Photos: 127, Displayed: 34


22nd April 2014
Stunning Kinkaku-ji

Great photos and perspectives!
You had me laughing at your wry comments and feeling so moved by your Hiroshima reflections! Good to hear there's yummy, affordable veggie food, even if you have to work to find it. And amazing that the sites were so crowded--I imagine they'd be impossible had the cherry trees been blossoming-yikes! So, now on to kim-chi, eh?
28th April 2014
Stunning Kinkaku-ji

Thanks for reading!
Thanks for the nice comment, Tara! Japan is so different in every aspect, making it a pleasure to explore and discover. Yeah, the vegetarian restaurants are great, but if you can convince people in regular restaurants to prepare a meat-free dish for you, it might even be more rewarding. It does require a lot of planning and language skills, though, plus the vegetarian restaurants are not to be found in smaller cities and in the countryside. Haha, yeah, there will be kimchi, a lot of it, in fact. Might take a while for me to write that blog, though, as I'm currently getting acquainted with México. Cheers, Jens
29th April 2014

on being vegetarian
its tiring to have to explain to waiters what vegetarian means! and frustrating that i usually have to look for italian and indian restaurants wherever i go
29th April 2014

It's hard sometimes
I know what you mean, mate. That's why vegetarian restaurants are that great -you can order anything on the menu without thinking twice. It's especially hard when you have to make yourself understood in a language you don't have a grasp of, and when the concept of vegetarianism is so alien they won't sympathise, as in Japan.

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