After six months of travelling I landed a new continent. The Americas had been wonderful, especially my time in South America, but I had felt an urge to discover the mysteries of Asia as well. I’m planning to head to South-East Asia for a couple of weeks of sports, relaxation and adventure; before heading to India/Nepal to tackle the Himalayas and the countries’ overwhelming charm and smell (as everybody is warning me). But my first stop on the continent is an island group that since long had fascinated me: Japan.
Flying from Los Angeles airport, still slightly hung-over from a typical college-party I attended the night before (think of kegs of beer, girls grinding up boys on the dance floor, commercial rap blasting through the boxes and a scent of marijuana in the air), I crossed the international date line. This brought up the philosophical question: “So will I be a day older now?”. I soon realised that this wasn’t the fact and dozed back off for a couple of hours of sleep. I landed in Tokyo airport with a huge jet-lag and for the first time in my travels I was confronted with a country where I didn’t understand anything of the language, even their scriptures (all three of them) were completely different; no wonder I felt overwhelmed.
Japan is a country of so many experiences and I had only two weeks to emerge myself in to it. Armed with a seven day rail-pass, I decided to discover as much of the main island Honshu as possible. First couple of days I would spend in Tokyo, getting over the jet-lag and trying to get comfortable in this new environment. My seven day rail-trip would start of in Kyoto, the former capital that’s full of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. After this I would look for some contemplation in the woods of Koya-san where I would be lodged in a Buddhist temple. I would finish my trip in the peace park of Hiroshima and the island of Miyajima, before returning to Tokyo.
Along the way I had some typical Japanese experiences that I would like to share with you:
Tsukiji Fish Market
This roaring market is the biggest of its kind world-wide, where over the course of a year more than 600,000 ton of fish is sold. Things start to get lively very early in the morning and if you want a shot at attending the tuna auction you’d better be prepared to get up before sunrise. I wanted to be at the market by 5 am to be guaranteed of a spot (limited to 140 visitors a day), so using the subway wasn’t possible. Instead I rented a bicycle at the hostel and set of for a 6 kilometre bike trip along the concrete veins of Tokyo. Luckily enough Tokyo turns out to be a very bike-friendly city with tons of separate roads for cyclists.
After putting on a yellow safety jacket, we were guided to the tuna auction hall in the heart of the market. Considering that the biggest and best tuna gets sold at prices as high a 200,000 euro and the technology addiction of the Japanese, I expected this to be a ultra modern auction hall with lots of blinking lights and prices popping up. It turned out to be quite the opposite. In a grey, neon-lit hall there were heaps of frozen tuna fish lined up on wooden pallets. Their tails were cut off and the interested buyers were slamming little axes in there to test the fattiness of the fish. Once everyone had assessed the quality of the fish, the bidding started. The auctioneer (who without any doubt had a history of ADHD) rang a bell, got up on a wooden box and started screaming out prices (at least that’s what I presume). Bidders, who could be identified by a tag on their cap, made a bid by raising their hand. Just as you were wondering whether the head of the auctioneer, which had gotten just as red as the tuna meat by now, would start to explode in a typical manga-style; the final price would be agreed upon and an old man would come over and paint the initials of the buyer in red paint or blood on the fish. All-in-all a very interesting process and definitely worth getting up early in the morning for.
After the auction and some further exploration of the market, I headed to one of the famous sushi restaurants which are located on the premises. Sushi can’t get any fresher than this and I was told you could notice this in the quality as well. Upon recommendation of Sabrina and Chris (whom I had met in Bolivia ages ago) I headed for Sushi Bun. This is the oldest sushi institution at the market where the fourth generation is continuing a tradition of over 150 years. I decided to trust the chef and went for the sushi set (omakase). At 3,650 yen (approx 35 euros) it was a bit of a splurge, but boy was it worth it. The fish is so fresh and the chef masters the cutting so perfectly; that once it gets in your mouth, it just melts away. I had never been a big fan of sweet breakfasts, but before this morning having sushi for breakfast still seemed to be a bit of an oddity. After sampling this delicious sushi set however, I’m definitely convinced. Sushi for breakfast, you can offer it to me any day.
Climbing Mount Fuji
Fuji-san is the highest and holiest mountain of Japan. Each year about 200,000 Japanese people make the three hour trip out of Tokyo to one of the four stations around the mountain and climb up to the summit. On a good day when there is no fog nor clouds, you should be able to see Tokyo from the top. The objective is to get to the summit by sunrise, when the view is the best.To do so, there are two possible options. The first is to head to the mountain in the afternoon, get about halfway to one of the higher stations and rest here for a couple of hours. Around 2am in the morning they wake up and tackle the last bit of the climb. This option however is pretty expensive (6,000 yen for a sleeping spot in a cramped sleeping hall), so I opted for the second option. This is to arrive at the bottom station early in the evening and head directly for the top. This saves on a night of accommodation, however it also takes away a night of decent sleep.
After reading up on the internet, I found out that the official climbing season was in July and August. At this time you have the best weather conditions to get to the summit, however you have to share the mountain with thousands of other climbers. Climbing out of season is officially not recommended, so I looked to team up with some other people to feel more comfortable about it. After a lively mail conversation, I met up with Gabriel from Canada, Ayyad from Palestine and Ammar from Pakistan at the Tokyo station. From there a bus and taxi ride brought us to the start point of our hike. Weather conditions weren’t optimal for the hike, as it was a bit cold and rain was drizzling over us. Nevertheless this couldn’t bring our spirits down, especially after we saw a team of Japanese cheerleaders starting the trek ahead of us. We set off for a seven hour hike to reach the summit.
All things considered this wasn’t the best hike I’ve ever done. Since you’re climbing at night most of the time, you don’t see a thing aside from what appears in the beam of your headlight. The path is pretty monotonous and fills up with slowly advancing school-kids and older Japanese people (who had been sleeping in one of the huts) once you get near to the top. The seven hour estimation was definitely aimed at the latter group, so we spent a lot of time waiting or napping in the outside of one of the lower stations to avoid summiting to early. Once I got to the top, I was just in time to see the sunrise. This lasted however only 2 minutes before everything completely fogged up and was in no aspect comparable to the sunrise I had experienced on Huayna Potosi months earlier. After this we still had to overcome the long path down, where we had to take our tired body and aching muscles along a steep path of scree. It definitely was good to be out of the concrete jungle of Tokyo, however this wasn’t the ultimate outdoors experience I had been hoping for. As an old Japanese saying goes ‘a wise man climbs Mount Fuji once in his life; only a fool climbs it twice”
Japanese people have an almost religious approach to their bathing culture. Every tiny village has it’s own onsen (hot spring) or public bath (sento). The origin of this tradition lays in the fact that lots of geo-thermical activity goes on below the surface, which results in tons of hot water sources (offer) and the fact that because of high prices until recent times most houses did not have a bathroom (demand).
These venues, which may be sex-segregated or not, all have a very strict policy. The most important rules are that everybody should be completely washed before entering the baths, all happens in a completely nude fashion and tattoos are forbidden (because of the yakuza connection). After paying an entrance fee (about 400 yen), you go to a changing room, where you leave all your valuables and clothes behind in a locker and take a tiny little towel with you. Next you go to one of the washing areas, where you’ll have a little seat, bucket, shower and soap to your disposition. Here you’re required to cover yourself totally in soap and rinse yourself off. This is without any doubt the most important rule. After your completely clean your allowed to enter the different baths and saunas. In small bath-houses you will only have one warm water bath available, in the bigger ones you can choose between different types of saunas as well as warm, cold and electrical (!) baths.
The weird thing for us westerners is that most Japanese people go to a bath house in the evening to relax after a day of work, while we’re more focused on a hasty daily shower in the morning the morning. However after a day of cruising through a city, I very soon learned to appreciate the wealth of a relaxing bath in the evening.
Because I’m always on the move and rarely have time to plan out my itinerary in detail, I frequently get confronted by impromptu decisions. My visit to Koya-san turned out to be one of these. After arriving in Kyoto, I found out that all hostels in Hiroshima (the next location I was going to) were fully booked for the coming days so I had to look for an alternative. I dug in to a tourist guide and started reading up on Koya-San which was in the neighborhood. This small town located up on a plateau in the Wakayam prefecture, is the birthplace of one of the two main Buddhist religions in Japan: Shingon Buddhism. After Kobo Daishi founded the first temple here in 816, over a hundred more temples have built here since. On top of this there is a sacred forest next to the town where all the important Buddhist persons get buried in an extremely peaceful setting.
Lots of Japanese people go over here for a day-trip, however the best way to appreciate this place is through an overnight stay in a Buddhist temple. During such a Shukubo experience, you are offered a private room (with those typical lovely sliding paper doors), an opportunity to join the monks in their morning rituals and the possibility to savour the delicious vegan meals (shojin-ryori) that are typical. After the overwhelming rush of Tokyo, this sounded very appealing to me and although the stay was pretty costly (9,600 yen per night) I ended up staying two nights at the Shojoshin-in temple before continuing to Hiroshima.
As you may know me, I’m not the most religious or spiritual person (I personally think every person should work his way through “The god dillusion“). However I found this a very enriching experience, which I might repeat once I get in to Thailand, Nepal or India. Being away for every day distractions lets you open your mind for some contemplation about your actions, ideas and ambitions.
Sumo wrestle match
After coming back from the fish market during my first visit in Tokyo, I passed by the sumo hall where I saw some bulky people in colorful kimono walking around. I recognized them as sumo wrestlers and soon found out that one of the big sumo tournaments was held during my stay. The final weekend was planned just before I left, so I decided to add this to my agenda (impromptu planning once more). On Friday I headed to the arena to buy one of the last spare tickets for the day. A typical day in the tournament starts early in the morning with the amateur wrestler games, then has the second tier wrestlers or juryo squaring off in the early afternoon and by the end of the afternoon the top tier wrestlers or makuuchi have their bouts. There are tons of rules, names and rituals related to a sumo tournament and it took me the whole day, a decent instruction guide and the explanations of some sumo groupies to understand all of them. If you’d be interested, I kindly refer you to the wikipedia page.
I got there early in the morning to see some of the amateur bouts and then headed out to pick up my camera lens which had been repaired as well as some unagi at the fish market. I got back just in time to see the ??? make their entry in the hall and was ready for an afternoon of battles. Much of the time is dedicated at the ceremonies before and after the bouts (greeting, throwing salt, lifting legs, grunting and staring). The actual fights are pretty short, mostly less than a minute, sometimes only three seconds. Nevertheless I had an amazing day, it was pretty impressive to see these mastodonts perform a brutal form of ballet dancing and see how fiercely the Japanese audience got involved. The last battle of the day involves the yokozuna, this is a title that is only attributed to the very best sumo wrestlers. In more then 250 years of history, only 69 wrestlers have received this title. The current yokozuna, Hakuho Sho, is having a pretty impressive season. The fight I saw him win was his 60th consecutive win, which brought him a step closer to the all-time record of 69.
Capsule hotels are things you see in futuristic movies or Japanese documentaries, which makes you wonder if they really exist. During my last days in Tokyo, I decided I shouldn’t skip on the possibility of sleeping in one. Green Plaza Shinjuku is the biggest capsule hotel in Tokyo, where each night 630 business men put themselves to sleep in something that mostly resembles a tiny futuristic tomb. Upon arrival I put my shoes into a locker and checked-in. You get assigned a locker key, a sleeping outfit and a capsule number. You have to stuff all your gear into the locker, since the capsules are pretty tight and not lockable. Here you also switch into the sleeping outfit before going up to the top floor where you have the common bathing area. After a fresh wash, groom and tooth brush, you’re ready to go out on town. So you switch back in to your normal clothes and go out in to the busy Kabukicho area. This is the vibrantly neon-lit red-light district of Tokyo, where drunk Japanese business men mingle with African proppers who try to convince them into entering their expensive massage parlours or strip booths. Not really my cup of tea and instead I settled for a cup of noodles. Well fed I returned to the hotel, where I once more changed into my sleeping outfit before retreating to my capsule. Sleeping in here might not be optimal for claustrophobic people; but since Japanese people in general are a bit more vertically challenged then I am, I also had quite some issues getting a comfortable sleeping position for my tall body.
Some other Japanese specificities I loved along the way:
– During my rail trip through Japan I got to take quite some trains. These trains are mostly point-to-point connections and Japanese people apparently all prefer to face the direction their riding in. Japan Rail has found an easy solution for this: once the train gets to its final destination, the clean-up crew gets in there and in an almost ritual manner switch the directions of all the chairs. Might not sound so exciting, but very amusing to see while you’re waiting for your connection.
– As in most countries, Japan use road markings to indicate where the road as. As in most countries, these markings will make a sound when you’re crossing them. But in most countries this noise will be pretty annoying. In Japan however, they have developed this marking specifically so that once you cross them they will actually sound like a basic song. Ingenuity sometimes is found in little things.
– Japan is quite big on its vending machines, estimates say there are some 20 million vending machines spread over the country. A major difference with other vending machines is however that they do not only offer cold drinks. They also make warm drinks available (out of the same machine), so you can get a warm can of tea as well.
– I you’re here, you have to experience the crazy madness in the pachinko halls. These are a collection of gambling devices where you slide down metal balls or coins in a machine and random luck determines whether you get some back or not (that’s what I understood of it). They originated in the aftermath of WW II, when the steel industry who up until then had been producing for the war industry, all of the sudden was confronted with an abundance of steel supply. They have been a popular success ever since.
– Lost in Translation. If you thought the movie was any good before, imagine watching it for the first time on a rainy day in Tokyo. It will blow your mind away.
– Japanese toilets, at first I was a little bit afraid to use the futuristic console on the right. Once I found an English translation of what the different buttons meant (temperature of the seat, direction, force and temperature of the water beam), I fully started to enjoy them.
Looking back at my Japanese adventure, I’m very happy I stopped here during this trip. It lives up to it’s reputation: the cities are hectic, the temples are enchanting and the food is magnificent. People may think it’s overly expensive, but I tend to disagree (see PS at the end). I would recommend anyone to come over here and enjoy this place with all its wonders. Just make sure you have at least 15 days (the more, the merrier) and buy a Japan Rail pass in advance to take you across the country.
Right now I’ve just landed in Kuala Lumpur and ready for the start of the South-East Asian part of my trip. This should involve lots of sports, adventure, trekking, diving and hopefully some Orangutan spotting. On Tuesday I’m flying to Kuching on the Malaysian side of Borneo, from where I will make my way up the coast to Kota Kinabula, the highest mountain of SEA.
PS: A couple of people have been asking me how expensive this trip has been. I browsed through my bank account on a rainy night and these are the estimations I can make for the different locations (without flights):
Japan (15 days): 1300 euros or 85 euros per day. I splurged quite a couple of times on food (fresh sushi, kobe beef, tempura, …) and accommodation (temple stay), so could have done this a bit cheaper if I’d wanted to.
USA (22 days): 1600 euros or 75 euros per day. Burning Man made this a bit more expensive, on the other hand I did not rent a car so saved some money there.