Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Japan: Mikey's Take

[Authored, as you may have guessed, by Mikey]

Hi, I'm Special American Guest #3. For several months, Simon the Stalwart had been gently trying to persuade me to meet him somewhere in SE Asia. Where? I chose Japan. And eventually I capitulated, and we decided on the week the cherry blossoms were supposed to blossom.

So I was set for the longest trip I'd traveled with anyone except family - 5 full days in Osaka and Kyoto. The day before leaving, for the first time, I fasted 16 hours to reset my internal clock. And, for the first time, I successfully adjusted to Japan Standard Time.


We met in a bookstore in Osaka, and I almost didn't recognize Simon - he wore a hat and his clothes were a bit more rumpled, his hair no longer buzzed off, and he was a calmer, quieter, clearer-skinned Simon than I think I've ever seen. I was dumbfounded for a minute, then we walked back to our hostel, on the way noting a man unmistakably urinating into the bushes.

Tuesday we woke to trucks rolling down the street that loudly advertised local politicians. We got coffee and toast, then played my favorite travel game: finding the highest thing in sight and trying to climb it. This took us up the Tsutenkaku Tower, just high enough to have a very compelling view of the city, and also featuring an extensive exhibit about my one true sugary love, Pocky. Then we went on to Osaka Castle; then, after a break, it was off to a baseball game. With remarkable energy - much of it kinetic - the Fukuoka section of the audience chanted things like, 'Let's, Matsuda, let's!' Which makes a lot more sense in Japanese than English. And then a long walk toward Dotonbori, the neon heart of Osaka nightlife, where a runner in a Glico ad raises his hands in the same Rocky-like triumph I felt at that moment. And then back homeward to finish the night at a karaoke bar where we were far better-received than we could have deserved, and where I successfully used several words of Japanese. Somewhere along there, my throat got a bit scratchy and stayed that way. I decided to keep going, but so then I was running with about 80% of my HP for the rest of the trip.

Wednesday we took a train through a growing range of mountains to Kyoto, supposed to be Japan's most international city. We split for a few hours. I went west, toward something high - the mountain Arashiyama.

Here there were many tourist attractions - shrines, a bamboo forest, a world heritage site, and old, beautiful Kyoto architecture. And for every tourist attraction, endless throngs of tourists, many dressed in kimono taking photos, many speaking English. Mildly disappointed, I went straight toward the highest point possible. This took me up Arashiyama and to a snow monkey sanctuary, 160 meters high. The view of the city was impeccable, and, surprisingly, the crowds were the smallest I'd seen all day. I paid about a dollar to feed peanuts to an eager baby monkey and his mother.

Simon and I convened at our hotel. The next day was a cultural journey. We saw the endless red torii gates of Fushimi Inari, then passed through many shrines and temples. In the evening, we ate at a sushi restaurant in a dark, picturesque alley. On the night's return walk to the hotel, we walked through cherry blossoms. They weren't in full bloom yet, but they were still lovely, lit, and kind of otherworldly.

For my final day, we returned to Osaka, land of takoyaki (octopus balls) and okonomiyaki (savory pancake). Still not feeling 100%, I scaled back more ambitious plans and instead we split up in Osaka for a few hours. A quest for an original Super Mario Bros. game brought me into Den Den Town, an excellently geeky neighborhood akin to Tokyo's Akihabara. Most of the toys of my childhood - the Transformers and the Nintendo games - are here. And arcades and manga stores and state-of-the-art Japanese electronics. It was like otaku Disneyworld. I play a few games, walk around a lot, and leave with a single Persona-themed tarot card 'the sun' - a good omen. I meet Simon again and, as best I can recall, we karaoke my last night away.

By the end of the week, I was searching out English and a bit of solitude. My trip back was just to L.A., not all the way home. It went smoothly, and I slept 15 hours when I got there and had a headache for about three days. I'm still unable to use chopsticks or speak Japanese fluently, but it was wonderful seeing Simon and getting very, very much away from it all.

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