Thursday, October 10, 2013

Japan, You Are Make Me Happiness

Going to Japan is always a breath of fresh air. Apart from the year I lived there, I've gone back for short visits twice and each time I'm reminded how much I ache for it. Perhaps it's because people always want what they don't/can't have, but I really miss everything (mostly) about that place and in some ways it feels more like home than Korea.

Because I'm pretty lucky when it comes to my job, I had a four day weekend when everyone else only had Thursday off. Gina played hookie Friday and we had four days to spend in one of the greatest, weirdest, cutesy-est countries in the world.  Our flight left at 2:30 Thursday afternoon and as per her usual standards, she waltzed in at about 1:45. Luckily, the airport was dead empty and there were no lines anywhere, so we breezed on through. We flew to Osaka with Peach Airways, which is a new (?), fuchsia hued, budget airline over here...which is why we went to Japan in the first place: CHEAP.

Shuttle bus photo time

My excitement was subdued slightly during the bumpiest one hour flight of my life (Samantha factoid of the day: I hate flying) and as we were touching down the only thing running through my mind was I'm not safe until the plane slows down thanks a lot Korean Air. I really only had a few objectives for the next four days:

Goal #1: Arrive safely
Goal #2: Locate Lawson in KIX Arrivals Terminal to obtain a carton of Lipton Milk Tea.
Goal #3: Continue obtaining Lipton Milk Teas for the duration of the weekend

(I love Lipton Milk Teas. I think I have a few blog posts dedicated to them)

We got tickets for the express train to Namba and I was already feeling at ease. The sights, the smells, the cleanliness...all of it made me pine for this place that I once called home. Gina mused that maybe I feel so much affection for Japan because it was the first place I lived when I moved across the earth so it's sentimental in a way...but I don't think that's it. I really think it's because I feel like Japan is so much more superior to Korea in many, many ways, and those ways are what made me like it so much in the first place.

Our arrival to Namba station was met with major confusion, the first of many to come. First, Namba station is huge. Second, the exits aren't signposted very well. Third, HOW DO WE GET OUT OF THIS STATION!? We wandered around for probably 15 minutes before we found our way above ground and even then we had to turn on Gina's data so we could get a map for our hotel. Looking at the map and hotel location looked easy peasy until we were stuck underground and just had to pick an exit, not knowing exactly where it would lead. I've actually been to Osaka before, it all seemed vaguely familiar, just not familiar enough to get us where we needed to go in good time.

We eventually got our bearings, checked into our hotel and went exploring around Dotonbori (spending lots of time at Forever 21) where had our first Japanese meal of the trip. I also had forgotten my flat iron (ugh!) so we headed to Don Quixote (ドン・キホーテ)  a store unlike any other. Gina so accurately described it as "the lovechild between a carnie fun house and Spencer's". It's like seven floors of anything and everything you could ever need in your life; I have no idea how inventory is done. It's all crammed into tiny spaces that you can barely get through. Alcohol? Pajamas? Cough drops? Soy sauce? Vibrator? Costumes? Cell phone cover? Milk? Jeans? Sheets? Lava lamp? Flat iron? It's there. One could easily get lost just sifting through it all.

Not my photo. Googled it. 

The rest of the night was just meandering around Namba.





Dinner time! 

Udon and cucumber and eel rolls



The next day we ventured to Osaka Castle (not without needing a map of the train station just to navigate it. Lost again!), a place I've always wanted to see and one of the most famous castles in Japan. It's enormous and magnificent. It happened to be field trip day for a variety of elementary schools when we went and therefore were surrounded by adorable children, some in the famous yellow hats worn by kids that Al and I would refer to as "ducky hats".

These kids were so good in english and so sweet!


I love that some are sneaking the peace sign because they knew I was taking their picture

Japan castles > Korea ones

They are much better behaved than Korean kids, I've said this from the beginning!

We headed back to Namba/Shinsaibashi to do some damage to our Yen, of which I didn't have much to begin with. We wandered down the machi (covered shopping streets) popping in and out of stores, then ended up back at Forever 21 to make sure we didn't miss anything. We went back to the hotel, gathered our bags (now much heavier with F21 merch) and went to catch our evening train to Kyoto. Since we were staying in a hostel there, the latest check in time was 10pm so we left Namba accordingly to ensure we arrived on time. It seems either Gina and I are at a loss as to how train/subway stations work or Osaka's railway system is just so complicated that it takes a MENSA genius to figure it out. The train map is easy enough and hyperdia.com (Japan-wide train timetable) is accurate, so why oh why is it so hard to execute?

We went to the supposed station, made it to Osaka station with enough ease to then be told we needed to be on a different train line than what hyperdia told me because I don't know why. She gave us directions to the other line which had all of one sign directing the way, so we were going down flights of stairs that lead us nowhere and through tunnels and around corners until we finally made our way. Once there, we stared at the map above the ticket machines trying to decide even which machine to use because they were different colors. I guess we looked perplexed enough because a wonderfully helpful woman with a cute kid came to our rescue and told us which way to go in her near perfect English. We get on the train with two hours until our window of check in time closes. Not too shabby, sure, we'll make it! All the cool kids sit in the booths so I made sure we were first in line to grab one and off we went.

The directions to the hostel are in my email and I have screen shots of multiple maps and this leads us into a false sense of security...because we get lost again in Kyoto. Unlike Osaka, we actually get out of the station fine after asking which bus we need to take. It drops us off and I check the directions: "Go back the way the bus came, turn right at first corner and walk straight 5 minutes." Sounds easy, yes? Well we did that but there was no sign of a guesthouse or even much civilization as far as I could tell. We eventually figured out that we took the bus coming from the opposite direction as we needed, so we crossed the road to the other bus stop and did the directions from there. Lost again. By this time it was past 10pm and we were getting worried. We took that "first corner" as indicated even though it was a weird switch-back kind of corner. Walked down a quiet street with a bunch of houses and along comes a woman with, again, perfect English asking if she could help. She directed us to a general area where we needed to go and after a stop at another hostel where a very nice Scottish man let us use the in-house computer to find a map, we arrived at Gojo Guesthouse at approximately 10:30 with the owners still up waiting for us, thank God.

That was my first and last stay at a hostel. I appreciate them and everything, but never again. For some reason, the other girls in our room were already in bed in the dark (booooring) so I had to use my phone flashlight to make my futon and whisper quietly. That's the only bad part about them I guess. If we had a private room I might have a better view on them, but having to be quiet and respect the other people staying in the same room as you is no fun whatsoever. We realized that the only food we had had all day was a coffee and egg pastry thing from Starbucks earlier in the day so we went on a food finding adventure, leading us to a 7/11 where I got a rice ball (omg, how I miss convenience store rice balls. It's like fried rice rolled up sticky so it's hand held. Hellooooo deliciousness), a custard cream bread and a chu-hi. Lovely dinner.

We had exactly one day in Kyoto and we wanted to do it right and hit the major attractions. We started by walking up to the area Gion, which is traditional and there's a lot going on. You can tell there's a lot put on for the tourists but it's still really nice. We went into some shops and set out to find some ramen for lunch, one of my top five favorite foods. Usually ramen joints are found down smaller back roads and this main tourism route was providing us with squat, so we settled for some kind of okonomiyaki saucy omelet (sort of) dish filled with god knows what. Gion was pretty nice, but nighttime is when it really comes alive with geishas so we will head back that night.

Gion street

Chinese girls in the traditional geisha dress


Main shopping street area...this one's for the tourists

We headed next to Fushimi Inari, one of the most recognizable areas/shrines of Kyoto and probably Japan. This was Gina's #1 and mine was the bamboo forest so we made those two the priority. The subway here was easy to navigate and the shrine was simple to find, to much relief.

These paper chains are a symbol of Japan. The cranes were started by a little girl who was a victim of Hiroshima




It was starting to wear into the evening so we got the train to the other side of Kyoto, switching in Kyoto Station and getting slightly lost because things aren't signposted well. We made to the area of Arashiyama where the bamboo forest awaits us. It's a vast sprawling of nothing but bamboo, some several stories high, with a pathway through it. I think it's some kind of park. (Gina has much better pictures that I do. I don't have copies yet)




It was getting too dark in that bamboo labyrinth to keep going so we found a way out and went back to Gion to have some dinner and find some geishas. We finally found a ramen joint, something I was looking forward to ever since I booked the tickets. Heaven.

One of the greatest meals in the world

Next on the itinerary: Geisha Hunting. We turned down one of the traditional streets and found a gaggle of people waiting outside of what looked like a restaurant. There was an expectant taxi cab running with the trunk open. We asked a few people and no one seemed to know what we were all standing there for other than, "we heard there might be geishas in there". As Al says, "nothing draws a crowd like a crowd". We joined in the waiting and I decided that after all this anticipation, I was going to be greatly disappointed if this turns out to be anything other than geishas or Justin Bieber. The restaurant man kept coming out and waving everyone off but the mob only continued to grow. We weren't let down! It wasn't Biebs, unfortunately (even though he was in Japan at the time), but a group of women in kimonos came out and paparazzi lights went off. Boring. But then, lo and behold, a few geishas scurried quickly out of the restaurant! People snapped a few pictures and off they went. After the horde dispersed, Gina and I decided to wait around. Again, a few more dashed around the corner and like the horrible people we are, we chased them down like a Lion on an antelope. My pictures and videos turned out horrible because 1. My camera sucks 2. I was running 3. It was dark.



After all the excitement and invading the geishas' privacy, we decided to grab some chu-his and Kirin and sit by the river. Apart from the families or older couples, I realized I rarely saw any foreigners, especially those our age. Because of this, I'm guessing, we were automatic magnets for Japanese men's attention. We weren't sitting down 15 minutes when two of them came and started with the usual, "Hello. Where are you from?" Internally rolling my eyes, we answered their questions and politely turned them down multiple times for going to get drinks. Then, because a lot of Asians have a hard time catching onto social cues, they persisted asking us questions even though the air was extremely awkward. The more talkative one had these things to say: "I love American girls" "My girlfriend is not like American girls" "Have you cheated before?" "When I go Los Angeles, I go strip club, I love it" "All American girls shave down, do you?" "American girls are aggressive when they have f*ck, I like this, my girlfriend does not do this". And on and on the awkwardness continued until they eventually left.

The second group to approach us was a gaggle of five, one of whom lived in Boston for three years so his English was near perfect. He would do the translating for the others, wanting us to go get drinks (always on them) and again, we politely turned them down. But the strange thing is, as I mentioned before, Asians sometimes (usually?) have a hard time catching on social cues. I'm not exactly sure why. But Boston guy immediately could sense that we did not want to go with them and stayed for short chit chat for only five minutes or so. Then with a smile and a nice meeting you, they were off. I know because he's spent significant time outside of Japan, learning about how foreigners deal with social situations, he's caught on to things like girls saying "no thanks" and moving on, unlike the others who can't grasp the hint that we desperately want them stop asking about our shaving habits and to kindly leave us be. Asian guys love cute, girlish girls with silly laughs and Hello Kitty adorned cell phones because that's the media over here. Anything cute. So as Gina and I are laughing out of extreme embarrassment when Guy #1 was talking about strip clubs and his girlfriend's hairy nether regions, he probably took it as us being cute and laughing with him because apparently talking about such things with strangers is perfectly acceptable here. Moving on.

Our third suitor was alone and smashed. Beyond smashed. And knew ten words of English. He really wouldn't leave and kept up his string of three sentences over and over and over and over for roughly 30 minutes. "You like Japanese?" "I am happiness!" My personal favorite: "Where you live?" "Korea" "Oh, I no like Korea!!" Gina and I were the ones to finally leave this time. Nightly night, strange men, we're off to bed.

After a brief stop at a playground to play on the swings, we headed back to the hostel to get our last night's sleep in before we left for the airport the following morning. Again, all the girls were already asleep, so we quietly crawled into the futons.


The next morning, we asked the front desk lady which bus to take to get to Kyoto Station. She gave us simple directions and sent us on our way. HA! She also failed to mention which side of the road to be on, so we got on the wrong bus headed in the opposite direction. Our minutes counting down to boarding time were ticking away fast. We eventually got on the right bus, got to Kyoto Station and bought tickets for the express bus to the airport with no more than six minutes to spare to run to the train before it leaves us behind. It was maybe an hour and a half to KIX, but then we had to take a shuttle to Terminal 2. After checking in later than we wanted, there was an announcement saying that the check in counters would be closing in 10 minutes for the Busan flight. If we would have missed that train in Kyoto, which we nearly did, we would have missed our flight. :::sweating:::

I don't know why I feel like Japan is so much more superior to Korea, but there were a lot of things I encountered or remembered about it that, in my mind, makes it a much better place. One example, people are much more patient. Koreans are constantly in a hurry to go nowhere. Always honking, always shoving each other to get in and out of the subway, it's chaos. In Japan, I was shocked to see that everyone actually waited for each person to come out of the train before attempting to enter. I don't think I heard a car horn for the entire four days. They don't drive like maniacs. Koreans also seem to have a very strange walking pattern that is always getting in the way of your own. You try to pass, they absentmindedly block you, you go the other way, same thing happens. No one was ever in my way there. Walking was easy and leisurely. A friend once said about Korea, "You'd think the way people walk would be universal." Not the case.

I also much prefer Japanese food. Everything Koreans eat is pickled or smothered in some kind of spicy sauce. It's all sooo sweet, even garlic bread is sweet. I'm sure they would find Japanese food more bland because it lacks fire and/or sugar, but that's what I love about it. Noodles and rice dishes are to die for.

Everything, and I mean everything, is much more beautiful. Even in the huge city centers, it's aesthetically pleasing. It's so clean! Korea is full of nothing but squared concrete buildings with no character and garbage absolutely everywhere you turn. It's not Korea's fault it had to build and build fast because they were brought into modernism so quickly, but it proves to be a stain in my vision because of it. Not to say that there aren't beautiful places in Korea, there are, they just have to be hunted down. Japan has a shrine/temple/castle everywhere you look, and if there are free space between buildings there seems to be smaller shrines which seem to simply brighten up the city. The big cities are also more than just ugly apartment buildings. Korea seems to have all these "skyscrapers" but then at second look they are just apartment building conglomerates. Japan at least has retained it's culture and history in it's architecture and that makes it all that much more beautiful to look at.

Japanese people are so much more fashionable than Koreans! There is like 30% of Korean women that wear something other than leggings and giant t-shirts and yes, that small percent looks nice. But every single Japanese man and woman looks fabulous. Their fashion is farther advanced than the rest of the world in their own weird little way and I love it. All the guys have weird haircuts and all the women are wearing something that makes you go wtf? They also have a strange obsession with false eyelashes that I had forgotten about.

Japan as a whole is much more uptight than Korea, though, which is probably the reason for their outlandish appearances. Korean culture gives people just enough freedom and leeway to where they don't feel the need to dye their hair multiple colors and wear combat boots with tutus. Japan keeps people so tightly controlled that during non-work hours people go crazy because individuality is reeled in there.

All this isn't to say that there aren't nice things about Korea, I just much, much prefer Japan.

Japan, I love you. You have a special place in my heart and I still can't really pinpoint why other than I could eat ramen every day for the rest of my life and be perfectly happy. Here's a photo tour of all things pretty and Japanese.

Alleyway 





Just a regular old building

These are the smaller shrine things that are around every corner

Walkway to a train station. I'm guessing they exist for no other reason than to just be pretty. 


Vending machines every 10 feet...I miss these as much as the food. 


That was probably my last trip to Japan, maybe ever. Unless Al and I have a layover there on our way out of here I don't know if we'll ever be back. I'm glad I got one last hoorah.





2 comments:

  1. I loved reading this! 4 years on, I still miss Japan so much and think of it pretty much every day!
    xo

    ReplyDelete
  2. I have just downloaded iStripper, so I can have the best virtual strippers on my taskbar.

    ReplyDelete