This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Capsule Hotel - Prisoner #3075

It is Monday June 28, my first full day in Tokyo. Mika and her friend, Chie, have left Tokyo for a one night massage and yoga retreat. My plan is to spend the whole day in Tokyo and spend the night at a capsule hotel. I leave the apartment at 12 PM. I first have lunch at my favorite udon shop, then walk, ride the subway, and shop until 8 PM. The crowded sidewalks, humidity, heat, and weight of my bag finally do me in. My last stop is at a Kaiten sushi place near my hotel. Kaiten sushi is self-serve. The sushi passes on a conveyor belt and you grab what you want. When you are finished they count your plates to see what you owe. They quality is usually low, but it is cheap (about $1.50 for two pieces) and fun.

Here is a silly Kaiten sushi video - not for the easily offended

I start talking with the guy next to me. Taiga has been visiting his parents in Tokyo and will soon take the train back home. He has already eaten eight plates but is not satisfied with the meal. He invites me to go with him to a nicer sushi place. We end up each getting a set menu plate, and everything is really good. It is a fun, interesting evening just hanging out with a complete stranger.

He insists on paying. I refuse four times - my max is almost always twice - even getting money out. But Taiga is insistent. I never fight over bills. My father and Grandparents used to always do it, and as a kid I thought it was strange. If I offer to pay I don't want the other party making a fuss. If someone still insists on paying after my two time refusal, they are stuck with the bill. In Israel, I once picked up this hitchhiker who ended being a broke traveler from Chile. I treated him to lunch. So maybe this dinner with Taiga is the karmic universe staying balanced. He does accept my offer of a Starbucks coffee before his train.

Finally, at 10 PM I enter the men's only hotel and put my shoes in a key locker. I pay ¥2500 US (27.50). It is usually ¥4000 (US $44), but Mika found a coupon on their website. I am given a key on a plastic bracelet for my locker. My locker is #3075. My bed number is also #3075. I am also given a pair of standard issue green pajamas. The clerk takes my shoes key.

On the same floor as the front desk are the locker/changing room, computers with free Internet, a television area with sofas, chairs and tables, two massage chairs, vending machines selling drinks and ice cream, the public bathing area, and a display of items for sale that someone may be short like socks and dress shirts. The beds are on the second floor. When I check in I see seven other guests lounging around in their green pajamas. It feels like I am in a cushy federal prison.
I go to locker #3075 and change into my pajamas. I leave my things in the locker and strap on my plastic bracelet. After sweating all day in Tokyo, the first thing I need to do is take a shower. The bathing room is like a traditional Japanese onsen. The hotel provides towels and every toiletry necessary except for toothpaste. I use Internet for about an hour and go upstairs to bed.

I find #3075. The capsule bed is a single mattress. I have about two inches from my head and feet from hitting the wall. If I sit cross-legged on the mattress my head is just about at the ceiling. I climb in my capsule and pull down the shade. On the right side next to my head is a light switch, a radio, an alarm clock and a television switch. I flip on the tv, and it is fuzzy Japanese porn. I try pressing some buttons to change the channel, but they just dim the lights and change the volume. I then figure out that behind the tv there is a coin box and a sign in Japanese that I am guessing says 6 hrs. for ¥300 (US$3.30). I turn off the fuzzy porn and light and go to sleep.

Being in the capsule felt very similar to the bunk bed style sleeping cars on a train with the curtain closed. You do not see anyone, but you can feel that strangers are near. In the morning, I buy underwear because I forgot mine. For breakfast hey serve toast with squeeze butter and jelly with coffee and tea. Everyone gets booted out at 10 AM.On Tuesday again I spend all day walking and shopping. And again the heat, humidity, bag weight and mega-city crowds wipe me out. My feet hurt. I would love to pass out. However, it is only 8 PM. The Japan World Cup match starts in three hours.

This is my first foray into video. Hopefully they will improve as I go along.

Crossing a busy street for my final subway ride of the day.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

He's Big, He's Bronze, He's Buddha

Thursday morning after breakfast Mika and I head out with our host, Rina, to see some sights. We hop on a trolley not far from the house for our first stop. There are temples all over the place in Kamakura. People use the trolley to temple and shrine hop. Our first stop of the day is at Jyojin temple. It is an outdoor stairwell that is lined with blossomed hydrangea. It is rainy season now so it is very green, the flowers are at full bloom and everyone knows about it. Today is Thursday and it feels busy. Rina assures us that the weekends are much worse. I hate extremely crowded events in Japan (and everywhere else really). When I lived here in 2006 whether it was fireworks, Christmas lights, or cherry blossoms the events are so packed with people all trying to view the same thing that even walking becomes a challenge. The Japanese seem to be used to it. I am not and probably never will be. In order to prevent a nervous breakdown in front of hundreds of strangers, I concentrate less on the beautiful thing we are all supposed to witness and use the event to closely observe my fellow humans.

We follow the small crowd on a narrow sidewalk and arrive at stairs leading up a hill. There are a few hydrangea bushes, and I am not sure what the fuss is about. At the landing there is a perpendicular set of steps leading up to the temple. We unanimously agree not to go into the temple and continue on about 20 feet when we hit a wall of people. Now I understand the fuss. There is a stairwell heading down the other side of the hill and walls of hydrangea are lining both sides. The purple, blue and white flowers are popping out of their green leafy base. From afar there is a view of the town and a small piece of ocean.
We make our way down the steps. There are many people snapping away with cameras and cell phones. On our way to the next destination we weave past people on narrow sidewalks browsing in stores and popping into an ice cream shop for some freshly made gelato.

The next place, and first on my list is Kamakura Daibutsu, The Great Buddha. I am not sure why, but I really enjoy visiting giant Buddha statues. Is it the fact that hundreds of years ago someone made such an enormous effort to display their devotion to their beliefs? Or is it that to my western perspective there is a definite kitsch to Buddha statues that I find endearing, and this warm feeling is grossly magnified in a 121 ton statue?
Rina leaves us to go run errands, and we enter the temple area. From over the main wall, we can see Daibutsu’s head in the distance. We pass the ticket booth and follow the pave stone path to the large statue that was completed in 1262. This is not a real holy place. It is more like an enjoyable break from the other more solemn temple and shrine visits. Very few people give coins and pray to Diabutsu. There are many school groups. Kids are running around everywhere. For only ¥20 (US 0.20) we can go inside the Buddha statue. Inside his bowels we see how the metal was welded together in a 30-part casting process. There is also some information about the construction and recent renovation. It is very hot inside a giant Buddha.
We leave Diabutsu and start thinking about our next stop. We check the map, but it is confusing. Throughout Kamakura there are large maps showing the locations of all the temples and shrines. The problem is that the map orientations are different everywhere. I do not see arrows indicating North. I let Mika navigate. It is lunchtime and we are debating the meal plan. Mika wants to sit and have lunch. I want to keep moving and eat near the next place. Usually when Mika is hungry her stomach takes control of the situation. I have much better camel reserves and will forge ahead with little nourishment. This is a reoccurring theme in our travels. I veto her first restaurant choice only 30 ft. from the Great Buddha entrance. She is starting to get cranky and luckily spots a small shop selling very large pork buns. Mika loves dim sum. Her stomach is happy, and a crisis has been avoided. It is now after 2 PM and most restaurants have closed for lunch. Now I am really hungry. We are near the next shrine. We go to a convenience store to rehydrate, and I get a bowl of cold udon (noodles) for lunch.
We arrive at the main road of Kamakura which will lead us to Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu, Kamakura‘s main shrine. The sidewalks are large and the street is busy with shoppers and tourists. We elect to walk on the raised pathway in the middle of the street that is lined with cherry trees. I am sure during cherry blossom viewing season this pathway is extremely packed, but right now there are very few pedestrians. We pass under the large red shrine gate and a long pathway leads to a plaza. For ¥100 ($1.10) Mika buys her fortune at the stand selling religious items. We walk up the steep steps to the shrine.
We come down on a more peaceful side trail that curves away from the main steps and passes through a wooded area. Mika spots a 4GB memory card on the ground. Now we have a big dilemma should we keep it, or do we give it to the lost and found. Since we are at an important shrine we ask the only pertinent question. What would Buddha do? It ends up that there is no lost and found, so Mika gives it to the girl at the stand selling religious doodads in case someone is looking for their lost photo memories from Kamakura. The girl seems very happy to have a new 4GB memory card.
The next day, Friday, we have only one temple on our agenda. We do not leave the house until 1 PM. Hōkokuji Temple is around a half hour walk from the train station. The first part of the walk is a part we had done the day before. The new part is uphill on, not necessarily a sidewalk, but a narrow part of the street blocked by a metal barrier. Cars and buses are whizzing closely by.
The entrance way to the temple is very green and mossy with a few statues. The main reason we came to Hōkokuji Temple is for its bamboo forest. We pay ¥200 ($2.40) each to enter. There is a stone path leading through the bamboo forest. For having such a narrow trunk bamboo stretches quite high. They also provide a lot of shade. There are several small, moss-covered, stone lanterns amongst the bamboo. It is a very peaceful and relaxing place.
Mika, tired from the uphill walk to the temple and not sleeping well, decides she wants to stop for an ice coffee on the way back to the train station. My body concurs that cold caffeine would hit the spot. We pass several small cafes, but Mika does not want to pay the more than $4 asking price for what is probably a very small drink. Half way back I guzzle a bottle of cold coffee from a convenient store. Mika holds out for better things. We trudge back to the station and finally find an air conditioned place where all travelers are welcome to rest their weary bones for as little as ¥100 ($1). McDonalds. Mika finally gets her ice coffee. I get a yogurt-ice cream. We have our treats and are just $2 poorer. We write a postcard, linger a bit and go out to buy groceries. We then take the trolley back to the house.

Monday, June 28, 2010

On the Move to Tokyo

On Saturday, June 26 we leave Kamakura. A half hour by bus and we are in Fujisawa. We meet Mika's sister and brother-in-law at a cafe near the station. We then realize that we were so busy running around Kamakura that we forgot to bring something for Miki and Yasutaka. So far we have been pretty good with this custom. This is our first flub and a big cultural no-no. The Japanese always bring something when visiting a home and seem to be always giving presents. Luckily it is her sister, and they seem to accept my excuse that after four years in the US Mika has forgotten all of her Japanese manners.
They leave us and our heavy ball-and-chain suitcases at the cafe to run some quick errands. I run to a nearby supermarket and buy some European cheeses, crackers and caviar. We all meet up again, put our luggage in the car and go to their home.

Miki and Yasutaka both work doing something with hard drive development, the likes of which I will never fully understand. They have a very nice, modern house. The toilet lids have a sensor to raise automatically. When guys go #1 you press a button to raise the seat. The alarm system says, "welcome home," when you enter and reassures you that you will be safe when you turn it on at night. There is a built-in tv in the wall of the bathtub.

Mika and I are actually pretty tired and are very happy just relaxing at the house for the afternoon. I use the internet while the three of them watch a Japanese movie. For dinner they have invited us to an unagi(eel)restaurant. Reservations are at 5:30. It is a bit early for dinner, but apparently this restaurant opens at 4:00 PM, makes just one dish, grilled unagi, and sells out very quickly. The restaurant is tiny, five very small tables against one wall and a counter with about seven seats on the other wall four feet away. I am on the inside seat, and the table is so small that Mika has to get up so that I can access my camera bag on the floor. I get out my camera and realize that I left my memory card at the house. Mika gets up again so I can return the camera to the bag.

We all receive the same tray. A square bowl of rice with four delicious slices of grilled unagi on top, some pickled vegetables, and a bowl of miso soup with a surprise treat at the bottom - eel heart. I am on the inside seat. With no elbow room I have to eat with my arms pressed against my side. The skin friction and is creating worrisome armpit sweat. Luckily we finish our meals and leave before a major crisis. In case you are wondering, eel heart is kind of chewy.

This link is someone else's photo of the unagi dish: Photo of unagi

Miki and Yasutaka both work a lot. Yasutaka pretty much gets home after 8 PM every night. They like traveling, but have very little time to do so. This evening we catch up on their small trips via technology. Yasutaka has saved all of his photos on a computer and has it rigged up so he can access all of them from the 50+ inch television monitor. He has seven remote controls on the coffee table. We should probably expect this from a guy who works with hard drives. His Mt. Fuji pictures are much better than mine.

The next morning we have a casual breakfast, shower and have our turn to show photos. Personal photos really look great on a giant monitor. But seeing photos from our DIY construction work in Denver makes me tired. We head back to station. Mika goes to Tokyo earlier to meet friends. I leave after lunch. I try to convince Miki to meet us in Bali.

Sisters taking Mika's 20 kilo (44lb) suitcase for a walk

I take the one hour train to Tokyo. Tokyo consists of many different areas. The subway stops are by street like NYC. It is by area, like having a Chelsea or East Village stop. The train goes to Shinjuku, probably the largest station in the city. I have two hours until I meet Mika so I go get a haircut and browse around. We meet up and now have to go somewhere to meet her friend and our next host. It is almost painful watching Mika travel around the city with her huge suitcase. We decide that in Indonesian cities we are only taking taxis.

We meet up with Chie and her friend. Chie is an pre-school art teacher and Mika's oldest friend. Chie is very budget conscious and has lived in Tokyo for a long time. She knows lots of good places to go. We eat at an Italian style family restaurant. Our dinner in the most expensive city in the world costs about $8 a person. We go back to Chie's apartment. In most Tokyo apartments space is at a premium. We are very grateful Chie has let us squeeze into her last remaining floor space. Before sleeping we have to roll Mika's suitcase into the hallway so there is room for our legs. Time is now moving very quickly.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kamakura Homestay

On Wednesday, June 23 we leave Shizuoka heading east towards our final destination, Tokyo. But first, our next stop is Kamakura. Kamakura is famous for having many temples and shrines, a long swimming and surfing beach, and views of Mt. Fuji. Its one hour proximity to Tokyo makes Kamakura a popular day trip for sightseers. Kamakura’s beaches are swarmed on the weekends. Luckily we arrive on a weekday.

As the train slowly creeps onwards I can feel that we are much closer to mega-urbanization. The buildings around the stations are becoming larger, taller and closer together. The train is also getting more and more busy at each station which makes it uncomfortable having suitcases that take up precious floor space. We get off in Ofuna. A busy stop to try to pull a suitcase around. I wish I was wearing a t-shirt that said “pardon me” in Japanese. I also start dreading having to ride the Tokyo subway with all of our luggage and don’t even want to think about Jakarta.

So two trains and one monorail later we arrive at Mika’s friend’s stop. Rina and her seven-year old son are waiting for us at the station. Rina is now a stay-at-home mom and urban herbalist. A few months ago they moved into a new home in a beautiful, hilly suburb of Kamakura. Kamakura is essentially a suburb of Tokyo. Instead of having a mother-in-law apartment, they bought a mother-in-law’s duplex. The home strangely has two adjoining interior doors with Rina’s mom’s house on the other side.

After settling in, we take a fifteen minute walk down to the beach. All along the sand they have started building wood structures that will temporarily house restaurants, bars and aesthetic salons to serve the mass of Tokyoite beachgoers this summer. The sun is setting and the western sky is turning pinkish. We continue along the beach and suddenly Rina points out Mt. Fuji. The shy mountain has finally appeared from the clouds to reveal himself to us. We start walking more briskly to get to the Mt. Fuji viewing boardwalk before daylight is completely gone. The sky is now a screaming orange-pink. I, of course, do not have my camera. Luckily Mika has her small one in her purse. We do our best to get photos of the iconic mountain.

That small triangle on the horizon left of center is Mt. Fuji.

That evening we meet Rina’s husband, Shingo, at a restaurant near the ocean. He teaches web design in Tokyo and has a one-way, 70 minute commute everyday. The restaurant is an Izakaya with numerous local fish specialties. An Izakaya is an eatery where you order many small plates that everyone shares instead of entrees. We also order a local sake. Everything is fantastic.

The next day, Shingo goes to work, their son goes to school, and we have a leisurely breakfast with the usual assortment of Japanese dishes that I have now become accustomed to. I tell Rina that if she came to visit us in Denver she would probably just get cereal and a banana. After breakfast she takes us to see some of Kamakura’s sights.

Mika and I return exhausted from sight-seeing on foot all day. Mika and Rina make dinner. I play soccer with her son in the street. We have a great home-made dinner of more Kamakura fish specialties. After dinner her son gives us a violin concert of Vivaldi with a Bach encore. When I was seven, I was lucky if I could play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the recorder. Shingo gets back very late from Tokyo. Everyone is too tired to wake up at 4 AM to watch Japan’s world cup match.

The next day Mika and I head out late with only one temple and grocery shopping on our agenda. We return home and Mika prepares Vietnamese spring rolls and fried noodles for dinner. After dinner we have a rousing game of the Japanese version of LIFE, which includes golf club membership, a Yakuza career option and nuclear plant meltdowns. Without being able to read the board or cards, I win the game. Rina’s husband returns from work just before 12 AM.

Early Saturday morning, Shingo heads back to work - if you have not figured it out yet, the Japanese work really long hours. Mika and I had bought bagels (package of two bland bagels = $2.75) , cream cheese and smoked salmon so we have a nice brunch outside with Rina‘s mother who told stories about her father who was an antique samurai sword expert. Around 12 PM we get on a bus to go to Mika’s sister’s house. Rina and her son take the half hour bus ride with us to Fujisawa just to see us off from another great visit. Then they turn around and go right back. The Japanese are very kind like that.

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Shizuoka, Fo Shizzle

As far as mother-in-laws go, I can’t really complain. I haven’t seen her for 3 ½ years. She has been very nice and hospitable the entire visit, we get served lots of healthy Japanese food (probably too healthy - I lost 2 kilo (4.4 lbs)). We borrow her car with almost no left side of the road driving experience, and she and I cannot have more than a two sentence conversation without a translator which means no what-are-you-doing-with-your-life questions. Regardless, Mika and I are getting pretty antsy to travel.

The day finally arrives. And the first place we are heading is Shizuoka to visit friends. We have had one minor setback this trip. One of my ideas was to walk up Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, Mt. Fuji tourist hiking season does not start until July 16th. Apparently it is still pretty cold up there, and we are not so inclined to try it ourselves. So that has been nixed from our itinerary. As a consolation prize our train to Shizuoka will pass by the famous mountain so we are excited about the Mt. Fuji vistas.
To save some money we decide to take the local train. I did not realize that it was such an ordeal. The trip took six hours, and we had to change trains three times. But time is one asset we possess and arrive eventually. Hideo is waiting to greet us at the station. His wife, Nao prepares a lovely dinner of assorted Japanese foods including a delicious tempura made with a special pink shrimp that is indigenous to Shizuoka.

When I was in Japan five years ago, Hideo and Nao were Tokyo-based textile artists. Things change. Most artists at some time have doubt about their career path. Two and half years ago Hideo decided to try the fixed-income life of a Japanese businessman in Shizuoka. This April - tired of long hours, stress, and entirely missing their young daughter's development - he quit. Now free from the Matrix, he is planning life’s next stage. Nao is still making art and has an exhibition in Tokyo next year.

The Igarashi Family
On Tuesday morning, Mika and I borrow their bicycles with the idea of riding to the beach. We are running a bit low on cash. I had planned to use my credit card throughout Japan, but they are not as prevalent as in the US. It is really hit-or-miss. For example, all big supermarkets take them, a lot of restaurants do not. We can use them for the train, but not the bus. Mika has the Yen equivalent of about US $140 in her purse and US $290 in the bank, but we are trying to save it for transportation and Tokyo. I have thirty-four cents.

Halfway through our 7 km (4 mile) journey we get really hungry and are passing many restaurants advertising amazing lunch deals, but it is doubtful they accept the magic plastic. Suddenly we spot a giant supermarket sign about ten blocks away. Saved! We make the plan to have a picnic lunch at the beach. Now famished, we buy two grilled squids, two potato pancakes, bread, snacks and a giant apple.

We arrive at the black sand beach. Except for some pigeons and three crows it is deserted. There is no swimming here and a lot of debris is on the sand. But having lived in landlocked Colorado it is always a pleasure to see the ocean. Near the ocean is a breakwater made of giant concrete tetra pods. It looks like we are on the set of Planet of the Apes. We have our picnic sitting on the tetra pods enjoying the ocean and mountain vistas. The clouds start getting very dark and ominous so we head back to the house.
This evening Mika and I plan to make dinner for our hosts. I make guacamole and Mika makes Vietnamese spring rolls. Good, non-Japanese, Asian restaurants are not so common in Japan. Mexican is almost non-existent except for a EL Paso hard shell taco package sold in supermarkets. This country is definitely not a melting pot.

The next day, Wednesday June 23, it is pouring rain outside, so we all hop in a taxi, unsuccessfully using umbrellas to protect our luggage. We pick up their daughter at school and go to the station. Mika and I are treated to a very good soba lunch, say goodbye to the Igarashi family and their great hospitality. We hop on the train towards Kamakura. The rain stops, but it is still too cloudy to see Mt. Fuji.

You'd be hard pressed to find a Japanese person that doesn't like soba.

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Saturday, June 19, 2010

Nippon! clap clap clap Nippon!...

My wife, does not like sports. She has never understood why people devote so much time and energy following sports. I brought her to her first sumo match. Coming to the US she thought the Super Bowl was where Americans go to knock down 10 pins and that LeBron was a river in Belgium. However, the morning after Japan's late night match against Cameroon, the first thing my wife says after waking up is, "I wonder if Japan won?"

The nation was ecstatic about the Blue Samurai's victory. It was Japan's first ever World Cup win on foreign soil. News channels (not sports channels) were going on all day about the game.

In Ina, Mika's hometown, on Saturday evening, they are having a public showing of Japan's next match vs. The Netherlands. I make Mika go down with me to check it out. It is rainy season here, and dark clouds are looming. On the drive down we are wondering if anyone will even show up. When we arrive the rain starts and there are only around thirty people milling about.
But the atmosphere is fun. News cameras were interviewing people in soccer jerseys. People are excited for the game. Everyone gets a raffle ticket for a chance to win free prizes. There is a stand selling beer and tako yaki - a delicious fried dough ball with octopus inside and a staple at every Japanese festival.
A half hour to kick-off it is getting quite busy, and the rain starts falling. There are a lot of young adults. Up until now we have rarely seen anyone in their twenties in this town. I thought the whole town was just old people and families with small children. The MC announces the raffle winners, and they do some cheers. At kick-off the rain stops, as if God likes soccer.

There is one group of rowdy guys with noisemakers who stand the whole game and lead everyone in cheers. There are several cheers throughout the 90 minutes, but just one stands out as the favorite. It is repeated as loud and as many times as possible. "Nippon" = "Japan" in Japanese.

NIPPON! Clap Clap Clap NIPPON! Clap Clap Clap NIPPON! Clap Clap Clap...

With about nine minutes left in the match and Japan's hopes quickly fading, the rain starts again. No one leaves. We go to the back of the crowd to stand under our umbrella. The whistle blows and everyone scatters quickly to avoid the downpour. People are disappointed, but no one is depressed or crying. The Japanese are pragmatic people. Everyone was pretty much hoping for a tie.
Goal!!!! Mika scores a towel at the pre-game raffle.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Twenty-Nine Hours in Nagano

We arrive in Nagano around 11 AM. My wife’s aunt is waiting for us where the bus drops us off across from the train station. Her aunt has kindly gotten us a hotel next to the station. We leave our bag with the concierge and go to lunch at a soba restaurant. Soba is a buckwheat noodle found all over Japan, but is famous in Nagano Prefecture.

Making soba by hand in Nagano

Mika's aunt speaks English because her family lived in New York for four years. It definitely makes the visit more comfortable and Mika gets a much needed break from translating. After lunch, they go shopping, and I tag along behind as umbrella and bag porter. We have a nice day just hanging out with Mika’s aunt.

This evening Mika’s uncle invites us to a very nice restaurant. He is a retired banker who now spends his days golfing and studying painting and computers. We all get the seasonal menu, a seven course meal of delicious food and beautiful presentation. Next to the restaurant is a Japanese saké brewery. We order Ginjoshu, a type of Japanese rice wine. It is incredibly smooth. Much different from the watered-down paint thinner saké I usually get.
We return to the hotel around 9 PM. After having spent the last two weeks sleeping on the floor and bathing in a public place, we are both very excited about the concept of a bed and shower. The hotel is an upscale business hotel. There is a nice, very large lobby. The room is fairly typical for Japan, (slippers, night shirt, individually packed q-tips and razors) just this has nicer details than a normal hotel (ex. the section of the bathroom wall mirror over the sink is heated so it will not fog up). Our double room has space for only two single beds, not queen. In the corner is a small sofa and table. Everything seems smaller in Japan compared to America's super-sized standards. I get in bed and flip on the tube. I have two English options, CNN International or Steven Seagal’s Under Siege. I fall asleep to the sound of Ryback kicking ass.

Breakfast is not over-the-top extravagant, but it has a very large assortment of Japanese foods with some fruit and a few western favorites. Everything is tasty. From our table we have a good view of the people exiting the train station. I ask Mika if she feels guilty about having a long, relaxing breakfast while people outside are scurrying to work. She does not. I don’t really either.

My breakfast is West meets East: scrambled eggs, hash browns, and bread with a side of Japanese grilled fish and stewed vegetables. Mika's is East meets West: Rice, seaweed, Japanese curry, and fish with a side of sausage and bacon.
We go back to the room. Not wanting to leave luxury, we lounge around until ten minutes before checkout. We then walk the 1.8 Kilometers through central Nagano to Zenkōji Temple. Nagano is actually quite a nice city. Our walk takes us past modern department stores, the 1998 Olympic torch and rusting podium stage set far behind a parking lot, some lovely pre-WWII brick buildings, a rarity in Japan and traditional Japanese architecture.
After touring the temple, we meet Mika’s aunt again for lunch. We go to a cliché filled Vietnamese restaurant. There are lots of black bamboo accessories and the Japanese waitresses are wearing some type of Northern hill tribe outfit. The food is not so authentic, but good. Minus a bowl of cereal, it is the first non-Japanese meal I have eaten in seventeen days. After already being treated to a nice hotel, lunch, dinner and present, we try to pay the bill for lunch and put up a good fight. But Mika's aunt refuses with a ferocity maybe only matched by my own grandmother when I have attempted to pay at one of her regular eateries in Miami.

After twenty-nine hours in Nagano, we hop on the bus and head back to Ina.

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The Path to Salvation Ends in Nagano

If you are like me you are probably wondering…“what the heck kind of travel blog is this anyway? The self-named ‘International Rambler’ has pretty much been sitting at his mother-in-law’s house for more than two weeks now”. Don’t fret. Our departure date is set. On Monday, June 21st we will gather our belongings and begin the nomadic lifestyle more suited for an international rambler.

Meanwhile, we have one more small trip to make. Mika’s aunt has invited us to come to Nagano for a visit, just over two hours away by bus. Nagano is mostly known worldwide as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics. To the Japanese Nagano is home to Zenkōji, one of the country’s most important temples visited by millions of pilgrims every year. The Dalai Lama is actually coming on Sunday.

Zenkōji Temple holds the first ever Buddhist image in Japan. It arrived from Korea in 552. I think in order to return the favor Japan sent Pokémon to Korea in 1996. No one has actually seen this image for hundreds of years. For the pious and inquisitive, a replica of the image is shown in a grand ceremony every seven years.
We walk up a small pedestrian road lined with beautiful monks’ residences and traditional Japanese inns. We continue on past the first gate and rows of small shops selling religious knick knacks, ice cream and everything in between. I buy a hat. Pass the second gate, and we see the main hall. It was built in 1707 and has been designated a National Treasure.

Right inside the main hall sits Binzuru. He was a doctor and Buddha’s most intelligent follower. Tradition has it that you rub a part of his statue’s body and then rub the same part on your own body. This will help alleviate your ailments. If you are lucky enough not to have any problems, you can rub Binzuru’s head and then your own. This will make you more clever. Most people are doing this for a laugh. However, in one touching scene, I notice a small, devout woman in her mid-80’s reach up to rub Binzuru’s knees then slowly rub her own. Next, using a cane, she moves around the statue to repeat the process for her back. A serious plea for help from her daily aches and pains.

We pass Binzuru and go to a machine to buy a ticket (¥500) which gets us into the main prayer hall and a passage through an underground, pitch-black, windy hallway that leads to the “Key to Paradise.” We enter the tunnel keeping our hand along the right-side wall and following the chatter of other pilgrims until we reach a large metal item that feels like a door knocker. At my turn I give it a few shakes. According to the brochure, “[o]ne touch ensures eternal salvation”. For less than six US dollars my eternal salvation has been guaranteed. Definitely a much better bargain than what is offered by American televangilists.
At every sculpture there is a box to give coins before making a prayer. My religion forbids idol worship, but this guy was just so darn cute I gave him a ¥10 coin.

Smoke from this giant incense burner brings health and good fortune.
After leaving Zenkōji, we go to a terribly boring museum that shows the process of making Nihonshu, rice wine. It is my recommendation to skip the museum, go to the shop and just get the free samples of Japanese saké.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


Considering that I lived in Japan for a year and have been married to a Japanese teacher for five, my Japanese should be much better. However, it’s not. These past fifteen days in Japan my vocabulary has greatly improved, and I have reached the point where I can ask people questions, but usually not understand their reply.

I go to a chain coffee shop wanting to order just a regular coffee. I do not know how to say “regular” in Japanese. The following is a transcript of the conversation. What is spoken in Japanese is in

Barista: Welcome. What would you like? Points to the menu at the counter

Me: Uh, sorry. Don’t read Japanese. English you speak?

Barista: Sorry. No English. Asks co-worker, she also does not speak English.

Me: looks and points at menu, Which coffee, um, no milk, um, black only, uh not cappuccino…

Barista: Do you want a cappuccino?

Me: waving the my hands for the Japanese “no”, No, no um, sorry, uh…

Enter Mika from stage right

Me: Mika, how do you say “regular coffee” in Japanese?

Mika: Re-gyu-lah Ko-hi

Barista & Me: sighs; Regyulah Kohi!

There are lots of English words imbedded in Japanese. I can watch the Wahludo Cappu Sokkah on the telebi, while sitting at the taberu eating grapufrutsu and a Macudonaludo hambagah and wash it all down with beeru from a waiin grasu. Later take a shawah and dry off with a taoru.

Easy right? The problem is knowing which words exactly are Japanglish. Then I need the correct Japanese pronunciation so it is understandable to the general public and so that I don’t sound like a dimwit. Not so easy.

I hope you have enjoyed this excerpt from my Torabelu Bulogu.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Shopping for Bigfoot

I need socks! Right now I am on a four pair rotation. My shoes are already borderline stinky, and I am a few weeks away from being in rain forests at the equator.

We have an old house in Denver and almost all of my socks had holes in them from nail heads ever-so-slightly protruding from our 105 yr. old wood floor. I did manage to scrounge up what I thought were six pairs of hole-free socks only to discover too late that two pairs were also irreparably holey.

Sometimes buying something like socks, that would seem so simple at home, turns out to be quite a chore in another country. My height is just under 6’(180 cm), pretty average for the US. In Japan, I am considered tallish but not absurdly tall. There are plenty of >5’10” tall men around. My shoe size is 10 ½ (44 ½ in Europe; 28.5 in Japan), again pretty average in the US. But here my feet must be freaky big because I could not find socks in my size.

So one day my wife goes shopping. I ask her to check this chain clothing store that sells five pairs of good quality socks for ¥490 (about $5.50 US). Only their size L is 25-27 (7-9 US). An employee tells her that they do not carry larger sizes. He goes on to say that his friend also has a large foot and cannot wear their L-size either. This goliath-footed pal goes to a specialty shop where he undoubtedly pays giant prices. I don’t like paying a lot of money for socks.

Finally, after three more clothing stores, some good news. I find a package of size LL (not XL) for US Men's 8-10 for only about $5.50. Close enough! Now if only I could find some flip flops.

If you have a large foot you better bring your on Crocs. This small town department store only carries up to US Men’s size 10. I guess now the famous Boulder-based company is trying to compete with the Rokkee Maunten, JonBenét-chan, and Balloon Boy’s mother as what Japanese people associate with the state of Colorado.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

From Hollywood A-Lister to Tire Salesman

One of the many amusing things about Japan is seeing hip Hollywood actors doing commercials that they could never get away with in the US. Andre Agassi's famous "image is everything" definitely has a different meaning here. Especially considering the huge sums of money that Hollywood A-Lister's get for promotions and appearances in Japan.

In 2006 I was living in Tokyo. There were enormous, two-story tall posters all over the city of Richard Gere promoting a men's product. I mean who does he think he is? Baseball great, Hideki Matsui?

Here is Nicolas Cage in funny ads promoting Pachinko, a slot machine-like gambling game:

In my wife's hometown - and we'll assume everywhere else in Japan - former heartthrob and Oscar nominated actor Leonardo DiCaprio is selling Ecopia's "environmentally friendly" tires at gas service stations.

In the US would his image survive being plastered on gas stations nationwide, even if related to an eco-product? And would anyone want to buy a tire from the star of Titanic?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Japanese Hot Springs Etiquette 101

For about 10 days now I have been staying at my mother-in-law's house. The home was built just after WWII and is considered kind of old for Japan. It is traditional style. There are sliding doors, tatami mat floors, a landscaped garden, and it is very difficult to maintain. We sit on the floor to eat, sleep on a thin futon mattress on the floor and shower....

Well, actually there is no shower. For some reason my mother-in-law does not want to fix it. This means that when we want to bathe we take a short walk to the local onsen (hot spring). My wife, Mika, like almost all Japanese people, is crazy for hot springs. I don't know how many trips we made in Colorado looking for hot, bubbling mineral water coming up from the ground. I think soaking is okay and can be very relaxing, but I do miss my 3 minute shower.

And unlike the privacy of your bathroom, when you are entering an area with many naked Japanese strangers there is always proper etiquette to follow:
  1. 1. Wash your body clean before entering the tub (see above photo)
    2. No jumping in
    3. Don't put your towel in the tub
    4. Dry off completely before reentering the changing area

The Unwritten Rules:
1. Use your towel to cover your privates while walking around from tub to tub (see #3 above).
2. No talking. There aren't sports, politics or benign conversation about the weather. Everyone is very silent.
3. No Tattoos. Japanese still associate ink body art with Yakuza (Japanese mafia). We have a Japanese friend in Denver who has a small fashion tattoo on her back. She went to her hometown onsen in Japan, and they told her that she had to leave. She returned the next day with a bandage covering the offending tattoo.
4. No peeing in the onsen.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hey Matsumoto-jō

Coming to Japan I said that there were three things I wanted to do: spend some days in Tokyo, hike up Mt. Fuji and visit Matsumoto-jō. Matsumoto is a bit out of the way if you do not happen to be in Nagano Prefecture, but I recommend it for anyone visiting Japan.

So we leave Hotaka and return to Matsumoto city to seek out Matsumoto-jo. Matsumoto Castle is Japan’s oldest existing castle and stands almost exactly as it was originally built over 400 years ago.

We pass the ticket booth(¥600)at the south entrance, go through a heavy wooden gate and enter the castle grounds to get our first clear view of Matsumoto. The black and white, building stands elegantly alone surrounded by a small lake and manicured garden.

It’s only once inside Matsumoto that you realize this was a military structure. The massive wood beams and pillars, small windows, steep stairs almost perpendicular to the floor, and wide hallways so that fully-armored samurai could run around were all built as defensive measures. Anyone who has seen an epic Japanese film can appreciate why one would want to do as much as possible to keep out hordes of angry enemy samurai.