Tokyo Go!

May 30th, 2010

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This trip will be tag-teamed by the equally adventure thirsty Kristi…picking up where we left off in Thailand. We flew into Tokyo a few days ago and got busy exploring the peculiarities of dense urban life right away. So far we have seen the bustling energy of the subways and trains, the Gothic trends of the Harajuku fashionistas (including a synchronized dance off by a team of Japanese Elvis impersonators) and a political protest by a long line of around 50 trucks and buses equipped with super loud megaphones that were echoing down the streets. In spite of the protests, Japan is by far the safest place I have ever been. Everyone is totally content with their own lives and journey for the day. The streets are impeccably clean. No body locks their bikes up. And this isn’t just true of a few small rich areas…everywhere we have been so far is friendly and safe. I can’t help but find this a bit odd as most of my trips take me through some pretty shady elements. Although maybe a bit too sterilized for me to enjoy forever, there is definitely something nice about feeling truly safe. I don’t think I could ever fully take my guard down (probably a good thing), but I find myself looking over my shoulder way less often than I do back home in LA.

Temple of the Volcano Monkey Spring

June 4th, 2010

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Greetings friends,

So the journey of the mind continues. We hopped on the Shinkansen bullet train and blasted off to Kyoto…the cultural capital of Japan. We did this journey with a Japanese friend of Dave’s (the guy we were staying with) and he welcomed us into his house to stay for the night. It turns out he lives in 1 of the nicest neighborhoods in the city and is smack dab in the middle of all the hot temple action. He showed us his favorite Japanese curry dish in the world that was on some back hidden ultra local side street and it was spectacular. The spices and layers of flavor were unlike anything i have eaten before. We wandered around the quaint streets and tried to imagine a time many many years ago where samurai battled in the bamboo forest. This was pretty hard to do as we were surrounded by literally 1000 little Japanese school kids on a cultural field trip running and screaming their heads off. It was a pretty amusing combination. The next morning, our new hosts grandmother unexpectedly served us some breakfast in bed (a small Asian futon matt in a delicate straw floor den). Then we found out (through our host, now serving as translator) that she was a famous calligrapher in her time. Nice!

Kyoto Culture:

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Although I did enjoy browsing these cultural sites, my threshold for temples and cities is probably lower than most. I wanted to explore the rumored jungles and islands of the south. So our next bullet train dropped us in Beppu. This town is known for its ‘onsens’ or hot springs. Their are a wide variety of hot springs but what separates these from many that I have visited in other parts of the world is that they also function as a ‘bathhouse’. That means no bathing suit allowed! Most of them are gender separated but their are a few ‘mixed onsen’ that allow both genders to co-mingle. There is definitely nothing freaky going on as most of the attendees of these bathhouses are quite old Japanese men and women looking for a relaxing soak. We have attended a handful of these but 2 of them are worth describing. One is essentially a mud bath surrounded by smoldering steamy water. The facility is pretty rickety in that it is mostly wet wood separating the walkways and areas. Kristi and I had to change in separate rooms and we weren’t sure where we would pop out or what we were supposed to wear. Did we just get naked and start walking around? There was no English speaking staff and almost no English written anywhere. After much ado, we ducked under a few walls and shouted a bit to nakedly stumble upon each other near a smoldering large mud pit. In we go! It was pretty nice although the mud felt very strange on our feet. The other neat onsen experience was a sand bath. This is where 2 hearty Japanese ladies instruct you to lay down in a sand pit where they proceed to bury you in hot shovel loads of sand. It felt a bit like being buried alive but they were kind enough to stop before covering our heads. After only 10 minutes the heat and weight of the sand started to feel a bit overwhelming. Overall a rejuvenating and unique experience.

Beppu Bath house extravaganza:

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Strangely, we decided to do our hiking AFter the hot springs. We heard about a volcano called Aso a bit further south. Some funky train transfers later, we ended up in a much smaller town that primarily served as a jumping off point for trips up to the caldera. The main viewing area was swarmed with tourists so we escaped down a 4 hour path to the other side. The hike was more rugged than we thought as we had to scramble up some loose rocks and do a bit of pathfinding…but nothing we couldn’t handle. The views of the large smoke plumes emitting from the sulfurous pit were pretty end-of-the-worldy. My favorite part were these cartoonish green bugs that kept landing on us. They seemed like the hosts for our journey and should have had microphones and theme songs.

Climbing Mt. Aso Volcano:

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The last outing we did was on a MONKEY MOUNTAIN! That is where there are 1200 free-roaming monkeys living on a mountain. This animal refuge type place offers easy food for them, so the tourists are pretty much guaranteed to get up close and personal with the monkeys. Upon arriving we were easily surrounded by 100 Japanese macaques. They all had such unique personalities. Some were intense and threatening…some younger ones were playful and carefree…others were tired and lazy…still others were scared and timid. There were signs all over the area instructing us not to feed them…and more interestingly…to not look them in the eye. This 2nd rule was much harder to obey as they had such human expressions. The monkeys were pretty clear about alerting you to your disobedience of rule #2 by opening their eyes very wide and showing their teeth. Usually this conflict could be de-escalated by simply averting your eyes and turning the other way…in other words being a total wuss. Well, one time I must have not been inferior enough as one of the more feisty monkeys of the group started screaming and chasing me! My avert and turn technique was not working so I had to kind of gallop away. All of the nearby japanese nature-viewers gave a very satisfying “AwwwWWWaaaaaa”. Yeehaaaw!

After writing all this out, it may sound like I am indeed on another jungle adventures but I have to admit it has felt quite different. All of these events have many many Japanese tourists (and almost zero non-Japanese people). Most of them are dressed stylish. There are always fast comfortable trains to everything. Streets and buildings are clean and efficient. Although it is nice to be comfortable, I find myself craving physical discomfort. I think that is what I have grown to associate with my travels. I suppose I am feeling more of a cultural discomfort…which is new for me as I have not had as hard of a time trying to understand and sympathize with the poorer nations of the world. Another strange new experience is the vague feeling of being unwanted. Its not that anyone is specifically rude or unhelpful. In fact its quite the opposite as anytime we are lost or utterly failing at communication, the locals have helped us out. But if we don’t engage them, they simply ignore us. We are not noteworthy. They don’t need our money. They aren’t particularly curious about our culture. I think part of this must be the very large language barrier between us. Maybe some of them (and us) are a bit shy. Perhaps even some form of elitism/xenophobia/racism is part of it as well. I have contemplated what in my mind is triggering this observation. Perhaps I am more accustomed to poorer countries where having money and being willing to spend it garners some superficial attention that can be converted into meaningful interactions. Or maybe its that I don’t have much experience being a minority and I am reacting to feeling left out or overlooked. In any case, these are good things to contemplate.

While I try to channel these thoughts into profound life lessons, we continue to seek out the adventures that Japan has to offer. Next up….a week on a Japanese cargo ship hopping around the islands of Okinawa!