Final Thoughts

It’s quiet.

It’s actually pretty surprising how quiet it is.

I always thought my apartment had fairly thin walls; if there was a vacuum cleaner or loud music or an argument in an adjacent apartment, it could definitely be heard. 

In Osaka, the walls, well… I don’t want to use the term ‘paper thin’, because that has different connotations in Japan, where traditional walls really were made of paper.  But they did not block sound at all.  If you rented a room there, you could hear quite clearly what the people in the next room were talking about, or what they had on the television.  

The silence, now that I’m back in the States, is almost disconcerting.  


My sleep schedule is somewhat off.  While I am not sure where I stand with regard to sleep, I suspect that my current sleep schedule is to fall asleep somewhere between 4 and 6 in the afternoon, and wake up around 2 AM.  Hence why I am writing this early on a Saturday morning.


There’s a concept in the Midwest colloquially referred to as ‘Minnesota Nice’.  The idea is this: You may think the person in front of you is a complete jerk, or an idiot, or a monster, or whatever.  But… you still treat that person with courtesy, even though you hate their guts.  

There’s something similar, but if anything even more pervasive, in Japan: the concept of humility.  It colors their language, it colors their actions; society expects that you humble yourself before others in your actions and behavior.  You show gratitude toward others; you bow to them, acknowledge them, thank them.  When you have a country the size of California, but with twice as many people, you have to learn to work with each other on a daily basis without killing each other.  How that is done is with humility.  You learn to live with each other by dialing yourself back, and by ultimately appreciating the person in front of you as a person, even if it’s through the smallest gestures.  When I first got back to the States, I was having to restrain myself from saying “Arigatou” or “Gomen nasal” to people for what Americans would think of as everyday things.  Doing your job; passing through Customs; driving the shuttle bus.  It’s acknowledging what they do as a human being, and thanking them for it.

We Americans aren’t that good with the concept of humility. Just look at our politics right now; is there any humility out there, on any side?  Even worse, is there any desire on any side to learn to live with ‘the opposition’?  

Humility works because it acknowledges several things.  First, that the other human being is a human being, worthy of respect.  Nothing can happen if you don’t at least recognize another person’s right to exist.  Second, that, while we may have pride in our strengths and in our intellect, while we may not see any fault in our logic or our position, we recognize that we don’t have the full story, and that other people, who have lived lives different from our own, have different information, and come to very different conclusions based on them.  It’s not because they’re evil, or because they’re flawed somehow.  They have walked down their road, and gone to a different place.  Humility acknowledges that walk.  Keep in mind, it doesn’t say that you have to bend to what they want, what they demand; just that you have that common ground, that you make a concerted effort toward building that common ground.

Also, just as an aside, humility also works from a strategic point of view.  There’s a saying in Japan: A capable hawk hides its talons.  In other words, you don’t present all of your skills, so that adversaries don’t know what they’re up against.  


It was interesting seeing politics from seven thousand miles away.  Away from the tension, with an ocean of distance, it felt like just a bunch of gossip being thrown around.  Which, by the way, is exactly what it was, what it is – just a gossip column, people with their own views and biases talking about other people who have their own views and their own biases.  (The opposite of humility, if you will.)

I’ll listen and read transcripts of speeches by politicians; I’ll read bills, summaries, executive orders, etc.  But I’m done with the press.  It doesn’t matter which side you support; the press of that support has become the Enquirer with a thin veneer of respectability.

And wouldn’t it be nice if there was a news outlet that didn’t report what they thought, that just posted transcripts as is, that posted videos of speeches and bills and executive orders as is, unedited?  That, to me, would be the ultimate humility: simply presenting the information, and trusting in the abilities of the people themselves to come to their own conclusions.  


I have an ‘official’ method of measuring my weight.  Basically, at a particular time in the morning preparations, I weigh myself.  I’d weighed myself “unofficially” on a scale at the hotel I was staying at in Osaka, so I had an idea of what was going on, but scales will be different, and the circumstances of the weighing were different.

My ‘official’ weight once I got back: 221 pounds.  Just over 100 kilos.  

Why this is significant… at the beginning of 2018, I weighed 295 pounds.  I’d gotten down to 222 pounds back in 2014, but stresses between 2015 and 2017 had me not thinking about my health, and my weight ballooned back up.  I’d been at about 225-228 lbs. by the time I got to Japan, but I lost a few pounds while here.  In summary, it has been well over a decade since I’ve been this thin, or this healthy.  

Here’s the thing.  I never dieted in Japan.  Not once.  I ate what I wanted to eat; the only concession I made to any sort of diet was that I didn’t eat shellfish because of allergies, and I drank plenty of liquids.  It’s just that I walked everywhere in Japan.  Stops for public transportation were roughly a kilometer apart, which meant walking even if you used the trains or the subway.  As a result, my physical activity shot through the roof.

In the US, unless it’s a big city like New York, it’s geared more toward cars.  Cars are more sedentary by their nature; you have to sit down for awhile and just be there as the car moves.  Moreover, you can just pull up right to your destination; instead of walking a kilometer to where you need to go, you’re right there.  

I am trying to find a way to integrate that activity from Japan into my life.  Some people just walk, but I generally like to have some purpose to where I’m going. 

Yesterday afternoon, I did something I’d commonly done in Japan.  I opened up Google Maps and found out how long it would take to walk from my apartment to a nearby deli.  About a mile-and-a-half.  I went out, took the walk, went in and ordered coffee and toast.  The coffee was percolator, so there was no helping that; the toast was cut far more thinly than in Japan, but was deli rye, so it had that going for it.  

The plan for Saturday – today – is to go to a place I’d mentioned in earlier posts and walk around for awhile: Cooperstown, NY.  Cooperstown is fun – and it’s not a tourist trap outside of summer, because they’re wanting for business during this time.  Also, having been to Cooperstown, I know just how easy it is to get some walking in there.


A fun moment after getting on the shuttle bus between terminals at O’Hare.  There was a line to get on the shuttle bus.  When I finally got on and saw the empty space in the middle of the bus as it pulled out, even though there were handrails available for people to stand, my thought was, “We could fit 8-10 more people on this bus easily!”


So.  One thing that I think has to be asked is “Would I do this again, and would I change anything for next time?”

First, this would not have happened without Airbnb.  This trip probably should have happened twenty years ago, but it would have cost too much.  I saw a lot of younger travelers in my journeys, and I couldn’t help but envy them the opportunity.  If I’d been forced to stay in hotels at the usual rates, I would not have been able to afford this trip.  So yes, I would do something like this again.  

As for length… Five weeks, I think, was about the limit; four weeks might have been better.  By about October 25 or so, I was starting to run dry with regard to energy and patience.  I was getting tired; my legs would hurt at the end of the day; my nerves were starting to get frayed.  

Next trip almost certainly won’t be Japan.  I suspect the next trip will be somewhere in Europe; maybe Scotland, maybe Toulouse, maybe Norway.  It won’t be for a few years; I suspect the next opportunity for such a trip would be the summer of 2022.  

I will miss Japan.  It was a good place to be, and at a good time.  I needed time away from where I was to think about some things, and it provided.  It was a great experience being in this culture I’ve had such interest in for so long.  So… Japan… thank you for being an excellent host.  

Finally, If you’ve been following this, if you’ve been reading this, thank you.  Be well and take care.


A few more bits of randomness

A couple of things I forgot to put in the last post.

McDonald’s has an interesting little slogan in Japan. You can see it up at the top of the board, here.


The slogan:  “Smiles: ¥0”.

This was a fun little bit I encountered in Umeda:


In case you’re wondering what this is, this is along a walkway that goes through some construction areas.  At one point, the walkway curves, then goes down some steps to go underground.  So… this is a warning to watch your step as you approach the stairs.

Here’s the thing: it’s an audio sign.  That speaker is basically telling everyone “Watch your step”, even as the sign does the same thing.

And, well… what bit of random stuff in Japan would be complete without toilet directions.


Oh, one last thing.  While I was there, I counted the number of people I saw who wore a shirt from the college I went to, and who wore a shirt from a certain rival college.

My college: 2.  That other college: 1.



More Randomness

A few more random thoughts here and there.

I realized, as I was writing this, that I hadn’t included a photo of the room in Osaka I was staying in.


In Japan, they have car accidents, just like any other place. And, like elsewhere, people will slow down or stop to watch. But where else are you able to watch an accident from a balcony?

Outside of Hiroshima Castle, I found the following figures for the bathrooms:

How often do you see a flared skirt and a ponytail representing the men’s room?

Saw this while walking through Shinsekai.  So… does this mean that the goods are Finnish, or the clientele must be Finnish?

Okonoshima Island also had its share of spiders.  The webs they would build were enormous; I saw one web that stretched over a road.

I found it interesting that Tezuka used Pilot ink – especially considering that’s what I usually use in my own pens.  (Alas, I have zero artistic skill…)

A drink for people who always give 110%:


For some reason, the Japanese love Kit-Kat.  Every flavor you could think of, they probably have in some Kit-Kat form.  One of the popular snacks at hot springs onsen is Manju – a sort of pastry with a red-bean-paste filling inside.  And, well…


That this isn’t the oddest Kit-Kat thing I’ve seen says a great deal.  The oddest?  Kit-Kat sake.



One flavor I haven’t quite gotten the taste of: matcha green tea.  I am usually fine with black tea, but green tea… ugh.  Some restaurants serve it as the basic “water” to serve to customers; I generally hate it when that happens.  I suspect green tea for me is a lot like coffee for some people: something to be tolerated only with generous portions of cream and sugar.

In front of the Tezuka Museum were hand and foot prints of some of Tezuka’s more famous characters.  I showed the Astroboy print in an earlier post.  Here’s some others.






Also from Takarazuka: some of the Revue statuary.




This may be the best definition of ‘salad’ I’ve ever seen:


Because books should be delivered like pizzas.


Some more woodworking to geek out over:


Proof that sometimes, it’s the simplest forms of woodworking that can be the most awesome:


In America, young people in love will carve or draw hearts and put their initials within the heart.

In Japan, it’s a little different.  Young people in love carve or draw umbrellas, and put their names or initials underneath the canopy.

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When I saw this one evening at the Kusatsu Onsen, I was pleasantly surprised.  It’s something that’s largely disappeared from the US, though was once fairly common.  It’s a milk box.


And, finally, Spider-Man.  Because, well, Spider-Man.  And this was long before Halloween.  This guy was coming from Denden Town, though.



Back to the US

Old bit of wisdom: it’s not enough to just get there; you have to be able to get back.  And while the flight back was considerably shorter for some reason (10.5 hours rather than 14; I guess Chicago rather than Boston makes a difference), it was still a long flight.  The interesting bit… the flight took off at about 5:50 PM on November 1 – and landed at about 2:30 PM on November 1.  Oooh, time travel!

So.  The last day or so in Japan.  The hostel I stayed at when I was in Tokyo for Halloween was a pretty fun place. They had a bar where the coffee was free as long as it was just coffee, where you could order an Ardbeg or a Balvenie scotch for 700 yen, where the owners were busy setting up the next art show in the back room. I made it to the hostel around 6 PM, dropped off my bags, and went into the city.  This was a group of the regulars, dressing up for Halloween:


Harajuku was nuts in a beautiful sort of way – as opposed to the first time, when it was just nuts. This is the land of cute, and when a creepy holiday such as Halloween comes, well… cute and creepy go surprisingly well together.  Moreover, unlike the first time I visited, it wasn’t crowded; it was a school night, after all.

That done, I thought about going to a couple other places, and eventually headed to Akiba.


I ended up at what had become a favorite watering hole in Akiba, watching random people go by. And yes, I deliberately started up Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ On The Dock Of The Bay” on my iPod as I savored a Belgian ale.  If you are ever in Tokyo, in particular the Akihabara region, and really want the best Belgian ale you’ll ever find, go here, and if it has “St. Bernardus” on the label, order it.


Odd bit of symmetry.  I went into the Don Quixote store in Akiba – not for AKB48, but for deodorant for the inside of my jacket, as it was starting to get a little rank.  So… on the day before I leave Japan, I finally – FINALLY – find a source of Diet Dr. Pepper.


Why is this interesting?  Well… the last major international traveling I did was to Denmark in 2003.  There, I didn’t find a source of regular Dr. Pepper until the last day before I left.  So, history repeats itself.

Was Tokyo on Halloween as awesome as I thought it’d be?  No; Harajuku was good, but I expected Akiba to be more interesting at the very least. Was it better than staying in Osaka? Yes.  Flights are a whole different level of worrying about things; not having to worry quite yet about waking up in time to get to the airport and where to pack everything made the day a lot easier.

Thursday the 1st started early; I woke up when I woke up, took a shower, and prepared my bags. This was a lot easier said than done.  Imagine configuring both my bag and satchel such that they could be used effectively as a backpack; the system of straps and clamps and buckles was complicated, but it worked.


Once done, I hefted my bags and headed down to Tsukiji.  Got some awesome Yirgacheffe coffee from a guy who does pour-overs there.  As I was getting my coffee, people were taking photos of the guy.  This confused me a bit until I realized… they’d never seen someone make coffee that way before.  Sufficiently advanced technique is indistinguishable from magic, apparently.

Breakfast at Tsukiji, again. Cake by the ocean?  I’ll take sushi, thanks.  And it is most certainly by the ocean; the signs displaying the elevation above sea level were demonstration enough of that.


After breakfast, I hung around Akiba for awhile.  Searched for something small to buy as a memento, like a keychain.  Didn’t find anything I really liked.  Well, to be fair, I did find a couple of things, but I was done with buying anything large.  As much fun as this would have been, I had to say no.  (And yes, Legend of Galactic Heroes / Ginga Eiyuu Densetsu / Heldensagen von Kosmosinsel is a bowl of awesome.)


Lost my sunglasses somewhere in all of that; heavy luggage, combined with hot day, combined with no place to safely store said glasses (my glasses case was lost earlier in the trip) led to them slipping off at some point.  My last meal in Japan: a chicken cutlet with a spicy sauce, with rice, salad, and miso soup. Good meal, not great, but still quite good.  Just a simple meal to end my time there.

From there, the trip became the usual travel to the airport.  Calling Narita a Tokyo airport is about like calling DFW a Dallas airport; it serves the area, it serves its purpose, but some other area calls that airport home.  Narita is 40 minutes away from eastern Tokyo on an express train; a non-express train would take 80 minutes.  (Something to take into account, if you’re traveling to and from Tokyo.)  I’d started toward the airport with about 3.5 hours to spare, and I’m glad I went so early.  I took a few last photos of Japan as the train sped from Tokyo.

I tried to take photos of a few things as I saw them, some things I hadn’t pointed out in earlier posts.  A cemetery, for instance:

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A school.


A driving range.  The Japanese love their golf, oddly enough; driving ranges such as this were fairly common.


As we sped away, Japan turned into something quite familiar, almost… American in nature.  A highway, complete with entrance and exit lanes and overpasses.


There were a couple of lost opportunities at the end.  I had just over ¥10000 when I went through security.  I should have purchased something; a Japanese iTunes card would have been ideal.  But, well… beyond security, the shops changed.  It was easier to find a ¥15000 bottle of scotch – duty free, of course – than it was to find a ¥150 bottle of soda. And no, I didn’t buy a bottle of scotch.  When you live sufficiently close to the Canadian border that a trip across is a reasonable thing to do on a Saturday, the words ‘duty free’ don’t have quite the same appeal.  I did eventually manage to find a convenience store-like place within the security zone, one that even accepted IC cards; I was able to use the rest of my ICOCA card funds.

A couple other interesting things about the flight.  There was a sizeable on-leave military contingent on the flight.  The backpacks of a particular style, suspicious physical fitness, and jocular behavior were a pretty big giveaway.  Also, I ended up next to a couple that really, REALLY needed to learn airplane etiquette, which made for a very long flight.  Putting your bare feet on the open tray table to try to get comfortable… ew.  Just… ew.  So yeah; it was rather unpleasant in its own way, though at least I could get a few hours sleep this time.

Customs was surprisingly uneventful.  They asked me what I was declaring, I told them, told them why I bought the laptop, they asked if I had any food or liquids, I said no, and that was that.  I was actually somewhat worried about customs because of the laptop; there’s an $800 per person exemption limit for tourists, and anything beyond that can be subject to duties.

I did notice a bit of brilliance on someone’s part at O’Hare.  Just as I was coming out of customs, I looked to my right… and there was a McDonald’s, right there.  Now THAT is what I call location.

Flight back to Rochester was delayed, which was annoying, but I had two seats to myself, which was really nice.  By that point, I was close to zombified.  I made it back, took a taxi to my apartment, and promptly fell asleep.

So.  Back in the US.  I’ve noticed changes – subtle ones – but I don’t think I can quantify all of them at this time.  There will be one or two more posts after this, a wrap-up of sorts; I’ll give my thoughts on those changes then.

Goodbye, Osaka

I’ve left Osaka.

The leaving got strange.

And it came so very close to not happening.

The morning after the hot springs, I woke up early.  Wrong numbers at 2 in the afternoon Texas time (was a Texas number) end up being wrong numbers at 4 in the morning for me.  As I knew I wasn’t getting back to sleep, I decided to take an early route back to Osaka.  There were some things I wanted to take care of there – wrapping things up, so to speak.

It afforded me an opportunity.  I got to see the hot springs without people around it, in the early predawn light.  Was quite serene and beautiful at that hour.

To understand how long the journey back to Osaka is… I boarded the bus at 6:20 AM.  I got to the nearest train station at 6:45.  Next train out left at about 7:05; I rode the train until about 8:40, where I could pick up a Shinkansen.  The Shinkansen, which left about 8:50, took about an hour to get to Tokyo station.  The Hikari Shinkansen from Tokyo to points west leaves at 3 minutes past every half-hour; I boarded at 10:03.  It was a 3-hour ride back to Shin-Osaka Terminal; we got there a little after 1. Easily the longest trip I took in terms of time, and likely in terms of distance as well.

It was then, that I started trying to wrap things up, that things went weird.

First, I went to mail a few packages.  I picked up gifts for a few friends of mine – books, cds, etc.  I also had a few things I wanted to mail back to myself, such as the aforementioned coffee mugs; like I said, I knew I’d have to travel light in Tokyo. I also had a few small toys I’d gotten from a vending machine, basically action figures from an old anime series I like.

Of course, when you send internationally, you have to state everything in the package.  Well… with mine, I listed the toys.  It was then that I discovered something odd about mailing things internationally from Japan.  If you mail “toys”, you have to demonstrate that (a) it has no batteries, (b) it has no volatile glue, such as with a model car or plane… and (c) they want to see what the toy is, some sort of picture; they don’t want anything they view as perverted leaving the country.

I looked on the internet, and could not find a picture of the toys in question.  So I could either (a) open up the package, which would make a mess and require getting more tape, or (b) come back after I’d gotten a picture of the toys in question.  I eventually settled on the latter; I was worried about the package beating me back to the States anyway, so a delay of a day wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I went back to that vending machine, bought another toy, and presented it to the post office this morning, and that was sufficient.

That evening, after spending a bit of time cleaning up the room, I went for a walk, and found myself in an odd situation.  Ever fear that you’re losing things?  Some of this is due to my own habits; I tend to want to take my ring off if I’m washing my hands, and I generally want to take my watches off if I know they would get dirty, wet, or both.  (I have two watches, because while I like the Apple Watch as an iPhone accessory and as a health monitor, I much prefer a standard watch – one that doesn’t require a plugin – for telling time.  Also, the wristbands I’ve made let me bring out my inner metalhead.)  I left my ring in my room; when I noticed it missing as I walked through Namba, I found myself hurrying back to the most likely locations as to where it could be.  Was a way to get exercise, for sure.

One other problem that affected things: my Icoca card went bad.  I had maybe 1000 yen left on the card, so it wasn’t that great a loss. That said… that it happened less than three days before leaving the country was bad timing.

That said… the main reason I was out was because I had a question to answer.  It’s my last night in Osaka.  What do I eat?  The answer: start with an appetizer of toro sashimi and skewers from Chayamamachi Maguro-ya, then some negiyaki (green onion okonomiyaki) from a nice little place in the northwestern part of Shinsekai.  It doesn’t get much better than that.  My evening meal done, I did laundry, packed, then called it a night.

The next morning, Halloween morning… was odd.  I’d spent over a month in that location; it felt strange to be leaving it.  I took a shower, went to the post office to mail that last package out (for some reason, the line at the ATM there was about 10 people long), had coffee and toast, threw away the last of the garbage from my room, and checked out around 11 or so.

That’s when the other bit of weirdness occurred.  The plan was as follows: Go to JAL counter, let them know I wouldn’t be boarding the Osaka-Tokyo flight the next day (it was only courteous, after all).  Turn in portable Wifi.  Get on the Shinkansen, head for Tokyo.  At most, I should have sat down on the Shinkansen by about 1:16 PM at the latest.

It ended up being 2:43 before I left.  As for why… it’s because it took at least an hour to figure out the right language to speak.

I went to the counter, talked with the JAL person there.  They said, in the course of a rather animated conversation, that I had to be on the Osaka flight, and that I’d need to talk with American Airlines if that was to change.

I called American Airlines. They said I had to be on the Osaka flight, and that if I wasn’t, allsubsequent tickets on the itinerary, whether I could make them or not, would be cancelled.

Needless to say, I was really not happy at this turn of events.  (Seriously, AA, WTF?)

So I went to a local pizza place basically to sulk and try to wash the bad taste out of my mouth. It was as I was dining on mushroom pizza (like I said in an earlier post, the Japanese know how to use their mushrooms in cooking) that I realized the problem, and the likely solution.

The right language to speak was not English, or Japanese.  It was commerce.  “How much would it cost to change my itinerary so that I wouldn’t have to board the Osaka to Haneda flight, and just board the Narita (and subsequent) flights?”

The answer, as depressing as it sounds, was about $177.  And, strangely enough, $177 (basically, $250, minus about $73 for the cancelled ticket) was a pretty good price for it.  Had I been forced to stay in Osaka under those circumstances, it would have left a bad taste in my mouth with regard to the entire trip.  No one wants a trip to end like that.

By that point, it was about 1:30.  Due to schedules and commuting and changeovers and the like, it was another hour and fifteen minutes before I was able to get on the Shinkansen.  But, I am on, with a lighter wallet, but a lighter heart, too.

And sometimes, that is enough.

I will miss Osaka.  Like most urban areas in Japan, it’s a hectic city; it was just laid-back enough for it to work as a center for a long-term vacation. Preppy Tennouji, quirky Shinsekai, geeky Denden Town, tourist-trap Namba… the living part of Osaka worked, making it a great place to work on the tourist part of being in Japan.

In Hot Water

Sometimes, what we most need is rest.

After I got to Kusatsu Onsen, I slept for 11 hours. Not sure how it happened, though I can guess. Walls are paper-thin – but this time I don’t have a city around me. I fell asleep very early for me, about 9 pm, and just slept.

Also, was cold when I woke up – the sort of weather I’d expected throughout the trip, to be honest. It’s the mountains, and the Airbnb I’m staying at was chosen because of its lack of modern amenities – it’s actually a temple. So the futon I was sleeping in kept me warm, even as the room got colder. Temperatures were in the 40s F in the daytime, and dipped down into the 30s at night.  I got to know the reason why futon blankets are so thick, and why kotatsu (heated low tables) are a thing in Japan.

I took a minute to finalize my plans for Halloween (basically, checking out of Osaka on the 31st and headed to Tokyo) and then made my way into Kusatsu.

But first, coffee. Japan has some good coffee places. Just… one thing I’ve noticed, as I’ve seen this every time I’ve gone into a really good place:

Everyone’s out of Blue Mountain. I can sort of see that… but still seems odd for every place to be out. I’d heard that there were tensions in the past year or so between Japanese buyers and Jamaica’s coffee producers. May be why I’ve been hearing more about Hawaiian Ka’u, Sumatra Mandheling, and East Timor coffee.

Okay. I just heard a chanteuse version of Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” in the coffeeshop. Weird.

Kusatsu is a pretty awesome place. They have a hot spring in the middle of town, which feeds all the other baths nearby:

There were shops and restaurants surrounding the springs. A temple, too, situated just above. Climbing the hundred or so steps to get there was a nice workout:

Eventually, after getting a lay of the town, I decided to buy a couple of towels and head for one of the baths. It was interesting walking there, as gnats swarmed the area. It took a bit to figure out why: the hot spring water was the only place warm enough for them.

I’d chosen this trip to get the experience of a genuine old-fashioned onsen, and Kusatsu was recommended as one of the best. That said, there was one thing I hadn’t really done yet in Japan – bathe in a traditional manner.

It should be noted that, in Japan, there is a difference between washing and bathing. Washing is important, and generally done before bathing; bathing without washing is generally considered bad form. Bathing is often done in a communal setting, in a large pool of sorts.

For someone not used to communal bathing, that can be just a little intimidating. Even worse, when I went to bathe, I couldn’t readily see an area to wash. Eventually, one of the other patrons pointed out a place to wash before soaking; I quickly washed, them headed into the springs.

Oh, did I mention this was an open-air bath? It was actually pretty relaxing, laying in the bath and looking up at the mountains. I just sort of sat there for awhile, up to my neck in water, my towel perched on top of my head, enjoying the heat of the water and the view of nearby mountains. It was easy to just forget about the world for a bit. After about 30 minutes of sitting there, I got up, got dressed, and went…

Well, where did I want to go? There were some mountains nearby, and I noticed on Google Maps that a tram led up to the top of one of them. Only about 5 km walk there…

Well, that didn’t go far. Maybe I read this wrong, but the road was closed due to volcanic activity. Have to admit, that’s a problem I’ve never encountered before. Still, was a good walk. This was the sort of country that wives in New York City and Boston nag their husbands to drive through so they can see the pretty colors.

I eventually made my way back to Kusatsu, got some lunch, and went back to the temple where I was staying. (Oh, small bonus: as a mini-dessert, the lunch set had compeito – a candy formed by dropping poppy seeds into a supersaturated flavored sugar solution; crystals build around the poppy seed, forming the candy. Always wanted to try that.)

The next couple of hours were spent preparing. I am going to have to turn in my portable wi-fi before I leave Osaka. This means that I have to know how to get to where I want to go, without the benefit of internet; I spent an hour or so putting locations into Google Maps, and writing down the directions. Unless I call another audible – and that’s not likely after the wi-fi gets turned in – it’s familiar locations; for instance, I’m staying at the same art hostel I did before. (I am thinking of one more audible, but that will be a decision I make before leaving Osaka.). The quirkiest part of it, oddly enough, is Narita; it’s a pretty good distance from Tokyo proper, meaning I have to know what station to start at for that part of the trip. But, well, I know how to get from Osaka Airport (where I drop off the wi-fi) to Shin-Osaka Terminal, how to get from there to the hotel in Tokyo via Shinkansen and another train line, how to get from that hotel to Tsukiji (breakfast on the 1st), how to get from that hotel to anywhere on the Yamanote line (the main rail loop around Tokyo) and how to get from there to Narita. So yeah.

Eventually, night fell, and I decided I wanted to go out for supper. The question is… what do I want, and where? I couldn’t think of anything I wanted that I either (a) hadn’t already tried, and (b) wasn’t too dangerous to try.

Which meant, well, it was time to see how the Japanese did Western food. A bar and grill overlooked the hot springs; it was time to see how well they did steak.

Um… not well – at least, not there. A good steak needs seasoning; this had none. It felt like a wasted meal, to be honest. Though it did provide a rather humorous moment. Sometimes, putting English words as katakana can be somewhat imprecise. I was wondering what “Greek” rice and “Greek” toast were on the menu. Well… ガーリック was “garlic”. Oops.

That said, Kusatsu went from “pretty cool” in the daytime to “1980s music video awesome” at night. I walked around the area, climbed some temple steps to work off the steak, and got a couple of diet sodas for the fluids.

Will likely leave Kusatsu early tomorrow. Have some loose ends in Osaka I’d rather tie up tomorrow than on the 31st.

Mugging (the good kind)

Decided to take it easy yesterday. Getting to the point of “now what?”

Well, sometimes things show up. The quest? To find a coffee mug.

It may sound silly, but there’s actually a logical reason for it. Some people will get some antique to remember their trip by. I was never much for antiques, outside or geeking over the woodwork, and those kind of antiques are usually (a) expensive, and (b) heavy. A coffee mug, on the other hand… I start every day with a cup of coffee. So it will certainly get used. I’d already purchased three coffee mugs… and was looking for a fourth to ease in packing for shipping.

Also, well… it’s the endgame. I’m currently on the last of the excursions I had planned – to an onsen in the mountains – and by the time I return, it’ll be the 30th. I have the 31st to sew up any loose ends, and then I fly back on the 1st. So yeah.

Started by going to something on the radar – the Umeda Sky Building. Not looking for a mug there… but just to look.

Yeah. Look.

For the record, I am acrophobic – sometimes.  Believe it or not, being acrophobic is a good thing for me.  If I fear death, it means I don’t want to die.  If I don’t feel that twinge of fear in a situation when it is called for, that generally means that something is going very wrong in my life.

The Sky Building was underwhelming, to be honest.  Parts of it were closed for repairs, due to recent storms, so it definitely wasn’t worth the ¥1500 entry fee.  At least the views were nice… also picked up a few souvenirs while there, so it’s cool.

Anyway.  I realized that a good place to look for said coffee mug might be Takarazuka.  Takarazuka is the sort of town that makes me wonder what else is there.  Just as Kojima seemed less than it advertised, Takarazuka has always seemed more than advertised.

As it turned out, I wasn’t disappointed.  I took a bit of a roundabout route around Takarazuka, and ended up finding a cheeseburger.

The Revue Theater is right next to a river; as it happens, there is a riverwalk of sorts there.  I followed the riverwalk and found a… not sure what to call it.  A bunch of stands selling their version of a hamburger, in a sort of festival.

There is one problem with how the Japanese take their hamburgers at times.  A common topping on their burgers is egg.  If it was a hard-cooked or scrambled egg, I wouldn’t mind it so much.  But they like to put soft-cooked eggs on their burgers.  The reason why this is a bad idea is that you stop having a hamburger at that point; you have a meatloaf. And, while a meatloaf sandwich can be quite good at times, it’s not necessarily what I want when I order a burger.

Anyway, the mug.  I first looked in Quatre Reves – the Takarazuka Revue store.  If any place would have a nice, elegant coffee mug, it would be there, right?  As it turned out… no.  They didn’t.  I was actually rather surprised by that.

So.  Where else to go?  Why not go and geek out at the Tezuka Museum some more!  Let’s face it, going to gawk at all of the artwork there never gets old.  I also found a mug while there, so mission accomplished.  The only problem with the Tezuka museum – and this may seem like a strange one – is that they need headphone jacks for the audio-video areas.

I had a cup of coffee while there as well.  No, this isn’t the mug I bought – the mug I bought was Macross-related – but I have to admit… I’ve never been so tempted to steal the silverware.

Takarazuka Station is certainly one of the more posh train stations I’ve seen.  Marble floors, for one.  So when I tripped on a stair and fell, and heard the hard clink of my recently-purchased mug, I froze.  I opened the box, checked closely for any damage… it looked fine.  I breathed a sigh of relief, got on the train, and went back to my room.

It took a little while to pack the box up.  It’s certainly a lot lighter than the last box I packed… That done, I put my stuff down and went out for a walk and some okonomiyaki.  Okonomiyaki is one of those dishes Osaka is known for.  It’s been described as Japanese pizza, but that description is not all that close, really.  It’s a batter with a bunch of stuff inside, anything from cabbage to green onions to soba noodles to whatever meat or seafood you want, this cooked on a flat skillet or grill with a distinctive sauce basted on top, along with some mayonnaise, seaweed, and bonito flakes.  I’d heard that this one place was where to go in Osaka for okonomiyaki, so…

Okonomiyaki, I think, will be the food I miss most when I leave Japan.  Most Japanese restaurants in America focus on sushi; it’s harder to find an okonomiyaki place in the States.

One other thing: people are already gearing up for Halloween.  I’m thinking of calling an audible of sorts for the end of the trip.  The flight from Osaka to Tokyo Haneda on the 1st makes less than no sense; I’m thinking of just getting a room in Tokyo for Halloween night, and flying out of Narita the following afternoon.

Besides.  Halloween in Akihabara, or in Harajuku.  Do I need to say any more?

Come For The Fluffy Bunnies, Stay For The Chemical Warfare

As I had said before, with the visit to Osaka Castle, I’d basically seen everything on my list. Granted, it wasn’t a long list, but it was there.

So… now what?

A friend pointed me to Okunoshima Island – Rabbit Island, as it’s sometimes called. And, well, the island may be full of cute and fluffy now, but it wasn’t always that way.

In the 1920s, Japan had a dilemma of sorts.  Where to put a chemical weapons factory?  It had to be secret – well, sort of, anyway; treaties banning the use of chemical weapons can be pesky things, but the treaties didn’t ban manufacture and research.  They wanted it on an island, the better to maintain secrecy and containment.  They wanted it somewhere away from any major metropolitan area, so anywhere near Tokyo was out.  Basically, they wanted the factory somewhere that could disappear. Okunoshima, in the Inland Sea of Japan, was perfect – and supplied chemical weapons used in their war with China. The chemical weapons factory continued until the end of World War 2.  After the war, the island was developed as a park/resort, and rabbits were introduced to the island and allowed to roam.  And, as any Australian will tell you, if you give rabbits room to breed without predators, they will do exactly that – and with remarkable speed.

Making my way to Okunoshima and back… well, it felt like a comedy of errors. I almost wonder if the scheduling was inefficient by design.  I stepped off the bus stop at Tadanoumi, only to see the ferry as it sailed away. Which meant waiting for another hour or so before making it to the island.  I busied myself by buying a couple of drinks from the local convenience store along with some rabbit-food pellets, and reading manga stashed in the waiting area of the JRail station.  (Something was wrong with the JRail station, by the way.  Not sure what, but some of the lines weren’t running. There was a train marked “out of service” on the track – and it didn’t move the entire time I was in the area.)

Okunoshima itself, though, was pretty cool.  Oddly enough, not because of the bunnies.  The bunnies were nice; I’d stop to drop some pellets for them every so often, and it was fun to watch them swarm.  Sorry, I’m not much of a pet person, which means I’m not much for feral animals, either.  No, what made Okunoshima interesting was the chemical warfare.  Keep in mind that it was, for all intents and purposes, a military installation during a time of war – more specifically, the sort of military installation you REALLY didn’t want to fall into the wrong hands.

I’m not much of a fan of selfies; I let my bag be my stunt double in this case.  Behind my satchel is the former power plant for the chemical weapons factory.

As I walked, I saw more military construction – gun emplacements, bunkers.

Some places could not be accessed.  The summit, for instance, was verboten.  Not surprising that there would be places like that, considering the stuff they were making.  The highest I could get to was a lookout point that was used to scan the waters for any incoming American ships.

I walked around the island… then eventually came to a beach of sorts.  A part of the island jutted out from the island proper – the end of the line, so to speak.  I took off my shoes and waded into the ocean, enjoying the feel of the cool water.

Eventually, I put my socks and shoes back on, and resumed my walk.  I was getting into the ‘civilized’ part of the walk, the area that was developed for resort purposes; there were tennis courts there for people to play.

I made my way down the walk to the hotel and the café, and had lunch, enoying the frolicking of the bunnies outside.

It was at this point that all of us in the café realized the bunnies were not completely without predators. Outside of the café, we saw a rat attack one of the kits; the kit managed to get away, but a hunk was chewed from one of its forelegs.  On my walkabout, I noted another bunny that had part of its ear bitten off; given the lack of dogs and cats on the island, I would assume a rat the likely suspect. (That bunny looked pretty badass, to be honest.)

I began to make my way back to the mainland about 3 PM or so.  And then… well.  I went to the train station in time for the supposed 3:16 train.  A train marked “Out of service” was there, but no active train.

So.  Now what?  Near as I could tell, the next bus back to Mihara – where I could pick up the Shinkansen – was an hour from then.  It was fascinating watching the buildup of people waiting… Eventually, a little after 4:00, JRail sent an extra bus; we all piled in and made our way to Mihara.

Not sure how I feel right now.  Actually, yes I am, just not sure what to think about it.  I’m tired.  Back when I worked at Burger King ages ago, I could tell how hard a day I’d had by how much my legs ached.  I don’t think I’ve had that hard a day – but my legs ache like a full day there.

To give an idea of just how tired… when I got back to the hotel, I took off most of my clothes in order to do laundry.  All I had on as I was doing laundry was a pair of shorts, a hilariously undersized robe… and a pair of sunglasses on top of my head that I’d forgotten to take off.

Not sure what I’ll do tomorrow – or if I’ll do anything, for that matter.  May do Kyoto again; not sure.

The Princess Is In Another Castle

Yesterday wore me out. I admit to being foolish; energy that seemed boundless that morning was about gone by evening. I basically carried a heavy bag through various parts of Tokyo, then Osaka, before calling it a day.

It didn’t help that yesterday was largely unsuccessful. I’d heard about a great little stationery store where you could get your own notebook made to order. Unfortunately, it was more the spiral-bound type; I was hoping more for a noteBOOK (as in, case bound hardcover) to my specifications – specifically, a lot more pages than the typical notebook, and a nice cover. Was an interesting neighborhood, at least; a lot of craft working, notably leather working.

Also, had my first “get out” moment. Some bars and restaurants will reserve spots for regulars, and tell gaijin to leave. Walked in, noted several empty seats at the counter, but was basically told to leave.

So, by the end of all of this, it felt like a wasted day, and I was exhausted. Eventually went for a negiyaki at a particular location I’ve found in Shinsekai, and called it a day.

So… today. When I was planning this trip, there was a list of places I wanted to visit. And there was one item left on that list: Osaka Castle.

Osaka Castle… how to put it. Back in the day, the various daimyo made getting to the castle an ordeal. Himeji is certainly holding to that principle. Osaka… not so much.

Now, there is certainly some distance to get there. Osaka Castle Park starts almost from the moment you get out of the station – but it’s still a 1.2 kilometer walk from that point. And yes, that is the castle in the distance.

Now, like Himeji (and, to a lesser extent, Hiroshima), Osaka Castle has its twists and turns, its series of moats and gates. One oddity of Osaka Castle: an unfolded most. The trench was dug, but never filled in.

That said, well… how to put it. Himeji, likely because of its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tried to keep things as original as possible. Osaka Castle, by comparison, has elevators. And yes, that is an elevator attached to the side.

Osaka… at one point, I took a photo of what I could only describe as both bizarre and strangely Osaka.  Near the castle entrance is a mall of shops, selling food and souvenirs.  So the photo had the castle, the mall, and advertisements for takoyaki and okonomiyaki.

Like Hiroshima, Osaka Castle had been demolished, and the rebuilt version converted to a museum.  They even had a recommended way to view the museum – first climb up to the top on the 8th floor, then steadily make your way down.  It told of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, the daimyo who’d built the castle, and who worked to unify Japan during his lifetime.  Also prominent was the controversy regarding the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the fun questions of whether to support the emperor or the shogun, and whether to accept foreign intervention into the country or oppose it.

The views from the top were incredible, by the way.

So.  Osaka Castle done.  Now what?  Well… there was one other thing I wanted to do.  I went back to Takarazuka, this time for the Osamu Tezuka Museum.

The best way to understand Tezuka… a trivia question with an incorrect answer.  What is the first Disney animated feature film based on an original story?  The ‘official’ answer is The Lion King; anime fans will tell you that the movie is a rip-off of Tezuka’s Kimba, the White Lion.  That said, the Tezuka estate’s response was that the artist himself would have been flattered by the imitation, given how much Tezuka was influenced by Disney. Osamu Tezuka was one of the pioneers of manga and anime, largely viewed as Japan’s version of Disney, drawing and writing such series as AstroBoy, Black Jack, and Princess Knight.

I’d initially intended to go the same day I went to the Revue.  I had considered waiting until the 31st, but I’m glad I went today.  There was an exhibit going on that I didn’t know about that was close to ending.

How to describe Macross… there have been several Macross TV series in Japan, starting in 1982 or so.  It’s space opera on a grand scale.  Moreover, around 1985 or so, a couple of years after the original Macross series was successful in Japan, some people, most notably a guy named Carl Macek, thought it would be successful in the US.  Some other things happened, two other anime series (Southern Cross and Mospeada) were mashed together with it to give it enough episodes to make it attractive for distribution, and Robotech was launched for syndication in the US.  It was one of the first Japanese anime series that America was exposed to.

So yeah.  I was loving the museum.  The basement and first floor were about Tezuka’s life and work, and how animation and manga production works.  The second floor had the Macross exhibit, as well as a library and cafe.  Seeing the drawings and storyboards…. wow.  Just… wow.  The library was also fun; basically just about any Tezuka story was there and available to read.

The trip is entering an odd phase.  To put it simply, next Thursday is going to be 37 hours long.  So it’s at that point where I’m wondering what I should do before it’s all said and done.

Breakfast of Champions, Tea Time of Idiots, and Supper of Madmen

For the first full day in Tokyo – the only full 24-hour period in Tokyo – I wasn’t sure what I’d do after noon or so. I did, however, know where I wanted to go for breakfast.

Welcome to the Tsukiji Fish Market. There’s actually several layers to it, and the private-insider part of it is in a state of transition right now, but the outer market is still unchanged. And if you want the freshest sushi you will ever find, well… welcome to breakfast in Tsukiji.

The market sells more than fish – it’s just that seafood is what it specializes in. For instance, this is genuine wasabi. Most “wasabi” in sushi restaurants is horseradish with food coloring; wasabi is generally expensive and doesn’t keep its potency for long, so it’s rarely used anymore.

So. I’m in the most famous fish market on earth, and I haven’t had breakfast yet. This will not do.

That said, I do have to be careful. Some things here would be very bad for me. Shrimp, sea urchin? I’d love to, but I don’t want to die, thanks. That said, there’s options. Oh, heavens, are there options.

I found myself in this one restaurant. I looked through the options, and I could have maybe three of their dishes in their entirety. That said, one of those dishes? Tuna sashimi, four different ways, over rice.

Now that is a way to start the day. Beautifully fatty tuna, fresh off the boat, with a glass of orange juice.

That done, I wondered where to go to next. I wanted to go see the Meiji Jingu shrine next to Harajuku, so I made my way there.

Imagine old-growth forest in the middle of Tokyo. Amazing.

After some wandering around, I made it to the center, to where the shrine itself stood.

It was an odd moment before going into the shrine. Generally, a person washes their hands and mouth before going in, first the left, then the right, then pouring a bit into the left hand to drink. Is it weird that I got mildly offended when people drank directly from the purification ladle?

I wandered around the shrine for a bit, taking in the sights. I was walking away, trying to figure out where to go through Google Maps. Hey, that well looks interesting; let’s try there! That’s the only reason why I turned back to the shrine… to see this.

A wedding procession, with the bride and groom seeking the blessings of the gods.

Another cute photo from the visit: a toddler and her father in traditional garb.

Meiji Jingu basically reveres the deified Emperor Meiji and his wife. At one path, I saw the alcohol equivalent of dueling banjos. Meiji loved his wine, and French vineyards had sent some to the shrine for consecration:

On the other side of the walkway, Japanese sake brewers were not to be outdone:

The trip to Meiji Jingu done, I walked back to Harajuku for some coffee. It was here that I made a mistake.

If you want coffee, choose a place for the coffee – not for anything else. There was a place that sold Kona, for heaven’s sake. But instead… I went to the Dominique Ansel Bakery.

The Dominique Ansel Bakery achieved some fame in New York a few years ago by “inventing” the cronut, a cross between a donut and a croissant. I’d thought that claim rather presumptuous at the time, as the Tim Horton’s cruller was pretty effective as a donut-croissant hybrid. So… I felt I had to try a cronut, to see what the hype was about.

I went in there, waited in line for a few minutes, then ordered a cronut and a coffee. The total was 1177 yen; as all I had in bills was 10000s, I gave the cashier 10177 ten, expecting 9000 back. I distinctly remember the coins: one 100, seven 10s, one 5, and two 1s.

The cashier put the money in the machine. For some reason, the 5 yen coin didn’t register. So, not thinking, she tried to give me 8995 yen back in change.

To err is human, to really mess things up requires a computer. I refused the change, and pulled out another 5 coin; if one didn’t register, maybe another would. This should have taken a few seconds of work. It ended up taking about five minutes, including voiding and ringing the order again, before the change was done. The customer service, in other words, was abysmal, because they relied too much on the computers, entirely on the computers, and didn’t bloody think.

So. I got the cronut and the coffee.

Was the cronut different from the cruller? Yes. That’s not a good thing, by the way.

There’s a Japanese word that describes the cronut perfectly: urusai (うるちい). For some old-school otaku like myself, that word is some of the first Japanese they learn. It generally has two related meanings: loud… and obnoxious.

The cronut I had was urusai. A croissant-donut hybrid should have some chewiness, some flakiness, and an airy lightness. A Tim Horton’s cruller has all those things. A cronut has the flakiness, and has chewiness to the point of making it troublesome to eat. But it was certainly not light and airy. Moreover, it was too sweet, disgustingly sweet; it was sweet to the point of sugar overload. In other words, the cronut was loud, obnoxious… urusai.

So, my advice, if you’re in New York and have the opportunity to try a cronut? Don’t. Go find a Tim Horton’s – they’re common there – and show Canada some respect by getting a cruller and a coffee. It’ll cost maybe a quarter of what it would at Dominique Ansel Bakery, and it’ll taste better.

Oh, and about that extra 5 yen? Dominique Ansel Bakery can keep that as a tip. I was tempted to leave more, but thought that too obvious a message.

With that bastardization of taste and customer service done, I felt the need to cleanse my palate. One trip to McDonald’s later, one large Coke Zero Sugar down, and the last of its taste was gone from my mouth.

From there… well, then what? I basically took the long way. I walked back to Shibuya station, even if it wasn’t the closest on hand. Apparently a dog would wait for its human at Shibuya, even after said human died; the dog was eventually immortalized in statue.

I wandered around for awhile, first exploring Ikebukuro, then going back to Akiba. Played a few video games, then began to think of supper. However, when I couldn’t decide, well… I decided to kill a little time by going back to the place where I’d had the Abt 12 last week, to relax and have another beer, and to watch the people go by.   They were out of Abt 12; that said, they did have a tripel ale worth drinking.

The beer may have made me adventurous. When I did find a place, well… I tried a couple of oddities I’d heard about.

This is natto – fermented soybeans. I’d heard some bad things about it, but it was surprisingly good, especially with a little hot mustard.

And this is corn and mayonnaise pizza. The deficiencies in the pizza were not due to the ingredients, but rather the preparation. (Translation: put this thing in a wood-fired oven, and it would be really good.)

Though it does bring up a fun question.  Which is stranger on a pizza: corn and mayonnaise, or Canadian bacon and sauerkraut?

After awhile, though, I realized I’d had a day, that I’d been out all day – that it was time to call it a day. So, I headed back to the hostel.

Have to admit, for a hostel, this is an awesome place. A couple of artists decided to open a hostel for creative types where they could talk and trade ideas. It’s not often you see a large-scale printer and a 3D printer sitting in the lobby…