Archive for the 'Japan' Category

Days 6 & 7: Where the Yodo Meets the Endless Ocean

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HUNDREDS OF FEET ABOVE Osaka’s streaming avenues, Janice and I are sharing a hot dog. Or some form of one. The sausage has been tucked delicately into not a bun, but an undersized French roll that leaves the dog sticking out the ends. Still, it satisfies, and we watch the blinking lights of planes arriving and vanishing above Kansai International as we dip into a conversation about the things we’ve lost.

The last six months have been taxing; an unconventional start to married life. The adjustment has wrung us of creative energies, and so much of what we sought in coming to this side of the world seems to have thus far escaped us. Weekends that could have been better spent traveling were frittered away on errands. Regimens designed to help us study language, write daily or cook more often were abandoned. Our friends have spread diasporic across North America, falling out of touch across an ocean, and we’ve yet to make any solid acquaintances.

We see the stage and the countdown clock ticking towards midnight. Perhaps it’s the altitude, but after several days of rest and exploration we feel ourselves sobering, realigning. The things that matter float to the surface as our minds settle in quietude. We talk now about what we want; what we promise we will do. And a New Year looms, almost literally, on the horizon. A half-rotation of the earth and Japan will again greet the sun.

Continue reading ‘Days 6 & 7: Where the Yodo Meets the Endless Ocean’

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Days 4 & 5: Sugar in the Sauce

THE WATERCOLOR GLOW OF RED and white lanterns washes over Pontocho alley as dusk slips silently into night. We had set out to find the perfect setting for our final dinner in Kyoto, but after being brusquely turned away from our first pick (no reservation) we find ourselves wandering. The restaurants all appear nameless, their doors hidden. The tiny rooms we pass are filled with diners and brimming with conversation. To my ears the words are an indiscernible murmur, but I imagine they speak of an Old Japan that even then was colored by change.

With no knowledge of written Japanese, we pause only at places that include pictures on their menus. We soon realize, however, that whether or not a restaurant uses photos is indicative of its atmosphere and caliber. Those that seem the most refined or traditional rely solely on the printed word to list their dishes. And so we feel our options whittled down to a potentially embarrassing/unappetizing meal at an upscale establishment or a more common experience if we play it safe.

Just as we consider exiting the alley to seek food elsewhere, a small, simple menu outside the doorway of an aged wooden building catches our eye. There are only a few things printed in English and no descriptions. But the name of one dish touches on the fading memory of a meal I once ate as a child — sukiyaki.

Continue reading ‘Days 4 & 5: Sugar in the Sauce’

Day 3: A Slow Walk to the End of Daylight

A FRENCHMAN WHO LIVES in Australia is looking for a jazz club in downtown Kyoto. He pensively inspects a folded map, looks towards the corner of Sanjo and Gokomachi, and then eyes me. A black saxophone case is slung on his shoulder.

“Do you speak English?” he asks, a muted sense of urgency between his scattered accents. I tell him I do and a relieved smile spreads across his face — the kind one might get upon finding their emergency cigarette at the end of a hard day.  “Oh man, that’s great!” he says, pausing for a moment to enjoy this good fortune. But at his second question, Do you know your way around here?, it becomes clear this celebration may have been premature.

He’s supposed to meet friends at eight o’clock at the venue, and it’s supposed to be right here. Janice and I lend him our eyes, sweeping the intersection once over and even looking at the map ourselves. But no dice. We’re just wrapping up our second day in the city and our local knowledge is thin. We wish our new friend good luck and start on our way back to the ryokan.

Then Jan sees it — Le Club Jazz (yes, that really is the name), on the second floor above an Italian restaurant overflowing with lubricated wedding party merriment, groomsmen outside chatting with glowing faces. I run down the street and catch up with our international musician and point him in the right direction. Champagne bubbles of thanks and excitement flow in return, and we consider checking out the club ourselves as we say a more final farewell. But we’ve been exploring since the morning, and a hot bath and our futon are singing a shamisen siren song.

Continue reading ‘Day 3: A Slow Walk to the End of Daylight’

Day 2: Honeymoon Breeze

TOIRRETU. THIS IS A WORD every foreign traveler in Japan should know, unless they are fond of doing that awkward dance one does when trying not to wet themselves. But don’t expect to find this word, dear reader, in the pages of Lonely Planet’s Kyoto City Guide. Though they have devoted in their glossary an entry for the word sabi — “a poetic ideal of finding beauty and pleasure in imperfection; often used in conjunction with wabi” — the LP staff thought it unnecessary to include the correct Japanese pronunciation for “toilet.”

And so there I was, aboard one of the sleekest and fastest trains in the world, painfully trying to communicate with the ticket-taker. “Batharoomu wa doko deska?” I asked, hoping that if slid a few Japanese-sounding vowels into my English that he would understand.

He didn’t. He cocked his head to the side for a moment, and then with an Ah! it seemed to click. Then, using his arms to make an “X” he said, “No Batharoomu.” And so I went back to my seat, confused and squirmy with two hours ahead.

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Day 1: By Land and Sea

I LOVE THE SOUND of trains passing. Our car rocks gently to the side and there is a thrumming like a sudden pulse of drums or the the roar of a factory; air moving in invisible and violent ripples.

We’re about an hour south of Seoul. The cities we pass are cold, industrial. Pale gray apartment clusters tower above the brown landscape while in the distance pillars of steam ascend into azure oblivion. The rural patches in between are dotted by low brick shanties with tiled roofs and rows of greenhouses made with wire and plastic. Rolling into Daejeon Station, an old man in a newsboy cap and protective face mask waits with his bicycle next to the tracks. Where he will go after we pass is only a flicker of a thought as my eyes soak in the rushing landscape; my mind is like heavy paper slowly and longingly being dipped in watercolor.

***

With the exception of a weekend jaunt out to the east coast in November, my wife and I had not left the capital since we arrived in July — two days after our wedding. Planning an overdue escape to Japan was thrilling in itself; the sense of relief I felt as we pulled away on the KTX was like finishing the last day of seventh grade. I pushed any notion of having to make a return trip as far out of my mind as I could muster.

We arrived in the port city of Busan and quickly hopped aboard a blue bus driven by a round-faced thirty-something sporting aviator sun glasses whom we soon learned had the most boring route in the city: shuttling tourists the two mile stretch between the station and the international ferry terminal. Traveler convenience, at the price of a young man’s sanity.

The boat was smaller than we both expected. The cabin was clean but its air was permeated by a distinct sourness indicative of past bouts of seasickness. I took notice of the presence of safety belts warily. An explanation saying that the Beetle Ferry sometimes has to take evasive maneuvers to avoid sea creatures (the Kraken?) did little to settle the force of our combined anxieties.

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