Sunday, December 2, 2018

The last three and a half weeks Markus and I where off and about in Japan. Visiting this far away country was one of my biggest childhood dreams, but it's a dream no longer. Japan: check!

We started our journey in Osaka, just the perfect place to start for someone so interested in new food like me.

It's a crab!

From there we went to Koyasan, a little village in the mountains that is mostly populated by Buddhist monks. And in one of their monasteries we spend two nights, visiting the Okunoin cemetery twice, day and night, and watching the monks pray in the early morning. 




The next stop was Kyoto. Here we went to the 61st Gion Odori, a weird but impressive Geisha performance that is held every year, and we discovered every cardinal point of the city on a different day.

                            So many ravens in Japan                                 Can you spot me?

A day trip to Nara had to happen as well. It's questionable if those deer crackers are good for the animals and usually I refrain from activities that may involve thoughtlessness on the part of tourists, but I just ... couldn't ... resist...
After cuddling as many deer as we could we ate the famous bluefin fatty tuna, served from a most impressive chef. Afterwards I found out that this tuna is an endangered species, damn! 



After that we lay low at the foot of Fujisan, one of my more favorite spots. And we were so lucky, even though the weather forecast just spoke of rain and thick clouds during our stay, they curiously made themselves scarce and we got some amazing views of the Fuji. The active vulcano looks much more impressive than we thought.
We saw two raccoon dogs here as well (with normal sized scrotums however) and the family that run our ryokan was just too lovely.


How kitschy is that?

Ones relaxed we were ready to hurl ourselves into the chaos of Tokyo. The mass of people here is suffocating, but equipped with some pointy elbows we blazed our trails to several overwhelming and sweaty arcades, tiny izakayas and weird sex shops. Unfortunately I got a bit sick here and we lost one complete day to a hangover... Ah, that one night in the Golden Gai...


I bought an instant camera and gave away a lot of pictures to lots of nice people that evening

Having checked off all of our destinations there was just one more thing to take care of: visiting Naka in Utsunomiya, Markus' old guest mother from back when he was young and visited Japan for the first 3 times! Her husband is growing fruits and vegetables in their garden and I learned to make homemade Gyosa from her (A specialty of Utsunomiya). A welcoming couple that let us being part of a little slice of japanese life.

And then it was time to say goodbye, to Naka and to Japan, lots of interesting encounters and new experiences in our memory, lot's of unfamiliar food in our bellies and lot's of backpain from sleeping on thin futons on the floor, ah.

Since I want to make a habit out of it, I again wrote a travel diary:

  Where the wild sushi grows, 2018

  To make one of my dreams come true, Markus and I first had to spend 24 hours in the butt-flattening and tailbone-grinding air traffic. But that was a small price for the next three and a half weeks.
  At the 28th of September we set sail in Osaka and for the first time in their life my feet touched a tatami-mat. There was a first time for other things as well: the unbelievable amount of words used to see you off when leaving a restaurant (and the deep bows of course), the wild herons in the trees in the middle of the city, the fact that blowing your nose on the street is frowned upon but urinating and defecating in public is totally fine, and for the first time a swastika isn't a bad omen. The short, lazy day was completed with the best takoyaki that at least I ever ate and a small shopping tour through a supermarket full of strident colours before we lay our spoiled European bodies down onto a futon.
  I quickly made friends with those toilets that have more buttons than my mobile-phone and so we could, after a couple of successful but-showers, set out to Osaka castle at the 29th. Except of the pretty facade that sparkled in the sunlight there was not much exciting to see here and so, after the short walkabout, we went to a secondhand clothing store, to snatch some wearable souvenirs, and from there into a tiny bar where I successfully gave the secret sign for the bill after a couple of beer. 

  At the 30th Markus finally started to believe that I am in no way in possession of a biological clock and therefor got spared from any jet-lag. So fresh and sprightly we headed to the aquarium to marvel at some fishes and since the strolling between seals and sardines made us hungry we looked out for some sushi afterwards (of course). Strengthened by a proper portion of conveyer-belt-bites we ventured to Dotombori in the evening, a well-known entertaining-district, that I personally just found exhausting unfortunately. After a little odyssey we luckily found a good place for an alcoholic bedtime treat and by now it was clear to see that smoking (even in cafés and restaurants) is still heavily in vogue here.
  We started the 31st with an assortment of seafood which never ended up in our stomachs before. Next to some big mussels and the fascinating takotamago, a small octopus with a quail egg in his head, a leg of the kings crab, of which you can find many plastic replica on the buildings, shouldn't have been missing. 
  At the 1st of November we went to the monks on Mount Koya. It was very cold in the Buddhist temple Yochi-In, in which we found our sleeping berth for the coming two nights, but the Buddhists know how to deal with that and so we could as well be warmed through and through in their whirlpool. 
 The 2nd was dedicated to a temple tour whose highlight was a walk through the holy Okunoin cemetery with its more than 200,000 monk graves. This we visited again after dark, as a labour of love for scary atmosphere.
  At the 3rd we prayed together with the monks in the dawn before our journey led us to Kyoto. Here we kept our feet still for now, for the last days have been quite exhausting.
(A monk! Not a mushroom!)

  Oh, I almost forgot: In Koyasan we witnessed an earthquake (magnitude 5). That reminded me on the jolting over cobblestone in a Trabbi, just like in my childhood.    At the 4th our eyes actually should marvel at the Kifune Jinja shrine, but a typhoon had buried the hiking path there in September under trees and so we were stuck in Kurama with the "tengu's" and finally went off empty-handed.  At the 5th we quickly squeezed through the crowds in front of the Fushimi Inari Taisha, to finally mount the Inariyama on hundreds of steps and through hundreds of torii. After the descent we had a cup of coffee with a following origami surprise on the part of the innkeeper and in the evening we scarfed down a hefty amount of okonomiyaki, served by an open-minded mister with infectious high spirits. Gratis on top we got a snapshot and a bag full of ominous coloured guck-balls, of which Markus just had to take one into his mouth. "Treasure.", said the okonomiyaki man. "Ugh! those really can't be eaten." said Markus as he spit out the chewed parts of one of the rubber balls.  The 6th was reserved for the promenading in the Arashiyama bamboo grove, but the visitor-flock made it impossible to breath in here and so we lingered instead in the more outlying Otagi Nenbutsuji temple with his 1,200 small Rakan-figures.  At the 7th we didn't see the wood for all the deer and so I felt like a kid in a ball pool in Nara. Hungry from the deer cuddling we stopped for a bite to eat in the probably most dirty sushi-restaurant Nara had to offer to eat the perhaps most expensive fish in Japan there between fat-dripping walls: Bluefin fatty tuna. (Ceci n'est pas un bambou.)

  But dirt or no dirt, the sushi-chef of the Maguro Koya conjured a smile on our lips with good food, sake and even some German words, for he had spent some time in Düsseldorf some 45 years ago. His wife had passed away just a few weeks ago... memo to myself: send a letter to the sushi-man when we're back home. Well, the following night Markus suffered from shivering and had to throw up, most likely food poisoning. But I felt great and so it was a complete success. And casually we acquired our much sought-after Noh-mask on our way home. Even a particularly beautiful one, carved out of thick wood and completely unpainted.
  At the 8th we ventured out to Gion and surroundings for the first time. First we went to the Rengeon Sanjusangendo, a Buddhist temple with 1,001 statues of Kannon and a "nightingale-floor". There one of the monks calligraphied these highly decorative seals and characters onto the paper in front of my eyes. The highlight of the day was however the Gion Odori, an annual Geisha-performance full of colourful kimonos, swirling movements and loud "Joooo's". At the following exploratory tour through the Gion district I refrained from taking pictures of the geishas on their way back home, which you can't say for all tourists.
  The 9th was our first day with bad weather and our last day in Kyoto as well. We purchased some more souvenirs and in the evening we had a home-style washoku meal, served by a nice restaurant owner with a fondness for German castles.
(Highly focused at work)

  At the 10th we let us catapult to Mount Fuji via Shinkansen. At our arrival Fujisan was still covered in thick clouds, but in exchange two jolly raccoon dogs crossed our path and to not go hungry to bed we had a huge portion of hoto noodles in the small town at lake Yamanaka, a local specialty (they also had bear meat in the restaurant...)
  At the 11th we made our first real attempt to spot the Fuji. The weather forecast was speaking of cloud cover but when we reached Mount Tenjo after a short ride with a cable car the shy holy mountain  stuck his head through the clouds for some seconds every now and then.
  At the 12th we had even more luck. The forecast again didn't give reason for hope to see the active volcano today and so we went out unsuspecting for a hiking tour. And there, against expectation, the clouds sprayed apart and made some space for some terrific views. Today lots of kitschy pictures were shot. On the long march along the Tokai nature trail I even found an abandoned hiking pole, that I will take home. After some onigiri on Mount Ohira and Mount Hirao we went downhill again, with even more photos of Mount Fuji in the luggage. Now we still had to circle the rest of the wale-shaped lake Yamanakako and on this way we met, between poodles and terriers, a German dog trainer who, with his likewise German trainer-wife, shooed Japanese dogs and lordlings over a parkour. When we reached our inn after 17 kilometers we got expected by the landlady and her little daughter who shyly handed over some origami-shuriken and a christmas tree to us. So sweet! Now we earned us a hot bath and a cold beer.
  After our little ryokan-family provided us with all kinds of stickers at the morning of the 13th we had to take our leave to Tokyo with a heavy heart. There was lots of waving behind us, as if we would leave the house for the very first time in our life.

  And there we already stood in the middle of this epilepsy causing chaos full of arcades, plastic, minors with too short skirts and sure deadly sweets. We spent our last energy reserves at a number of machines in Akihabara before we went to our hostel on spaghetti legs.
  At the 14th first signs of a cold became noticeable, the overpopulation-shock must have been too intense. But there was no thinking of relaxation and so we quickly went to the installation Borderless from TeamLab. There I annoyingly had to realize that the most fun activities were accessible just for kids. For our revenge we conjured some horror fishes onto the walls of the gay painting section. After that we searched for the Gundam-museum. For that we inconspicuously had to follow a group of young Japanese for a while, but in the end we reached our destination. By the time of our stay a gunpla-competition was held and afterwards we found out that the only installation we took a photo of came of as a winner. For my abnormal joy I purchased an instant camera just next door! Back to the roots!
  The 15th passed by pretty unspectacular. To finish off our shopping list we strolled around in Akihabara ones more and towards the evening the cold sent us to bed early.
  But instead the 16th went on all the wilder. After a day-filling walk through Shibuja and surroundings we headed out to Shinjuku at dusk. Here we drank so much so long in several dwarf bars until our memory of that evening was interlarded with blackouts. We laughed with perfect strangers, gave away lots of pictures, lurched headless through the area and around 6 in the morning Markus threw up into the trash can of our hostel room. What a night! 


  Overwhelmed by a heavy hangover we didn't have much of a choice but to stay in bed at the 17th while watching Netflix and eating fast food.
  And at the 18th we already had to leave Tokyo behind for our last destination led us to Utsunomiya. Here lives Markus former guest mother Naka, who received us now wam-hearted into her home as well. After we stumbled into an international meeting there and got showered with food, we made ourselves comfortable under the kotatsu in Naka's house and gathered some strength in front of the Japanese TV.
  At the 19th we then nosed some country air. In the left-hand traffic we went to the Ryumon falls in Karasuyama (Karasu = crow), then mandarin picking in the mountains and finally into a small but great open-air-kabuki-museum. In the evening I learned how to make gyosa and these got eaten up voraciously afterwards, together with the self-grown vegetables of the landlord. Later the little grandson came for a visit for whom I without further ado juggled a bit with our mandarins.
  At the 20th we now already had to say goodbye again. After I quickly learned how to craft obijime, Naka brought us to our train. Back in Osaka we just had enough time to eat okonomiyaki before we headed back home at the 21st.
  And so even the longest awaited journey has an end.
(Goshisosama deshita.)

Of course we met some nice folks, had some amazing days and saw great new things (the exception proves the rule) but summing it up, my personal experience in Japan was rather negative. I felt like a bacteria, completely unwanted in this foreign country and constantly monitored. Some people may be able to ignore this and just have a blast, but I'm far too sensitive to be untouched by how others perceive me. I don't want to annoy people that don't want to have me around. Too many restaurant owners turned us down already at the door-sill, "No english, no english!" they said, too many frightening reviews from other tourists involving xenophobia and too many people on the streets mumbling unfriendly things in our direction.
Next to that it was sad to see how behind the whole country is. So many nations start to be aware of environmental issues nowadays, but not this one as it seems. The plastic waste is alarming, as well as the waste of water and energy, smoking in restaurants, cafès and bars is still allowed (I even saw a father smoking in a restaurant just right next to his toddler), women's rights are still urgently needed and the way animals are treated is just not right (thinking about animal cafès and endangered species that end up on a dinner plate without remorse). 
Additionally the country suffers heavily from overpopulation, at least in the cities, and tourists of course don't make this any better (in retrospect I feel a bit ashamed to have been a part of that problem now myself...). There is no space anymore for anyone, it's suffocating and highly stressful, especially paired with all the lights, nonstop noises and missing green-spaces. Sometimes I just wanted to scream...
It's also strange that, even though there is so much crazy new technology on one site, the housing for example looks extremely run down on the other. The living areas (even in famous cities like Tokyo and Osaka) are very old and show many signs of decay.
But this is of course just my personal perception and also just a picture painted over the course of just three weeks.

Nonetheless I'm happy that I finally saw it with my own eyes. I learned a lot about a very different society and I also learned a lot about myself and what I value. So in the end it still was a great vacation whose memory I will carry with me for a long time.


Have a nice sunday.

+ 3670 EP for Exploration
+ 240 for Socialising (forced)