Sci Goes to Japan, Part the First

Jul 09 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

YES, Sci spent her vacation in JAPAN!!! And enough of you asked me to blog about it that I'm going to comply. Hopefully it will only be a 3-4 part series (yeah, long trip), but we'll see how the pictures go! I actually keep travel logs every time I go somewhere, and what you'll be getting is the transcript, with some added detail. You'll also be getting it in a somewhat addled state of mind, as I have just found out that trying to recover from a 14 hour time difference is...REALLY hard.

Below: many photos and relatively few words. The words there are, are mostly about food. Sci tends to eat her way through foreign countries with great enjoyment, and Japan was definitely on the top of the list.

I would also like to introduce my travel companion and photo stand in...The Intrepid Neuron.


(The Intrepid Neuron, packed and ready for travel!)

Intrepid Neuron is a giant neuron from Giant Microbes. I actually own several (obviously this is THE gift to get your local neuroscientist), which is probably good, as between them Intrepid Neuron can continue for at least 20 more trips. So whereever you'd usually expect to see a pic of a person somewhere, look for this little guy standing in.

Day 1: Arrival

OMG we're in Japan!! Every so often I need reminding. Plane ride was 14 hours, and no matter how much I told myself otherwise, I was totally convinced that it would be dark when we got there. It was not. In fact we got in a little after noon. Today's challenge: staying awake until at least 8pm.


(Intrepid neuron wishes ardently for more leg room)

Our friend A met us at the airport, and the first thing? Starbucks. Obvious if you're trying to stay up after staying awake for more than 14 hours. I got a kind of latte called matcha (green tea). It was, indeed, green. And somewhat of an acquired taste. We stopped at a place for lunch. In Japan, the smaller restaurants actually put plastic examples of their food in their front windows, so you get an idea what kind of food is available (especially useful if you can't read the kanji system). The menus also often include pictures. The food is actually pretty nicely plastinated.

We then hopped on a bus to the Yakota airbase, where our friends A and C are currently living. Japan is an odd mixture, so far, of modern, and VERY not modern. Out the window on the bus you'd see: cement, car dealiship, cement building, rice paddy, high rise...wait, RICE PADDY?!

...and then I fell asleep on the bus. Green tea latte ineffective.

We got in just in time for dinner....SUSHI! It's true, you have sushi in Japan and the stuff in the US pales in comparison. All the usual suspects: tuna, salmon, whitefish, roe, cucumber. No such thing as a California roll to be seen, though. And even better, the sushi doesn't come by order. Instead, it comes on a conveyor belt which snakes between you and the sushi chefs, with the pieces themselves priced by the color of the plate they are on. You grab the ones you want, stack the plates up at the end of the table by color, and that determines how much you pay. Tea is included and comes in a little powder on the table with a spoon, with hot water available at a faucet at your table.

And here Sci had her first weird food experience: HORSE. Not just horse. RAW HORSE. Sushi, with raw horse. You know, like you do. I had one piece, and it tasted like really really rare beef, but then a major psychological block set in and I couldn't bring myself to eat any more. I tried a bunch of other delicious things I was used to and many I wasn't, but filled up before I really wanted to. I still regret those two pieces with the huge slices of avocado and pickled plum on top...

Our friends also gave us a crash course in Japanese social norms at dinner. Major rules:

1) In the US, you walk on the left and stand on the right. In Japan, you walk on the right and stand on the left. And you get MAJOR glares if you don't.
2) Don't blow your nose in public. Dab yes, blow no.
3) If you are ill with a cold, runny nose, allergies, etc, wear a face mask (like you usually see in medical facilities). A densely populated place like Japan takes potential disease outbreaks VERY seriously.
4) Don't eat, drink, or smoke while walking. This is an odd one to us, being always eating on the go, but it's considered very rude to eat or drink while walking or moving. No eating, drinking, or smoking while walking. Either stop and stand somewhere (there are lots of standing lunch counters, for example), or sit at a table, a set of stairs, or on the curb to eat your snack. DON'T walk and eat.
5) Public Displays of Affection are very NOT done. Don't hold hands too much, don't hug, and if you're going to kiss in public, get a room. These rules are bent for the young.

All rules of conducts tend to be bent or broken with grace when you are Gaijin, which means a Foreigner, or someone who is obviously NOT Japanese. They'll usually give you a pass (though not on illness, thanks). That said, I haven't grossly violated a social norm yet. I know it will happen and will stick out like a sore thumb. I already DO stick out, being both obviously Western and about a foot taller than everyone else. That includes the men.

Final note on today:
Japanese school girls really DO dress like that. I thought the cartoon world was exaggerating. Nope, the skirts get THAT short.

Day 2: Hiking

I wanted to start each date with a real date, but they are 14 hours ahead, and I honestly wasn't sure what day it was most of the time. And now I'm back and I'm STILL not sure!!! Oh noes.

It's 5am and I'm eating delicious cookies with raisin centers and thin crust on the outside. First crazy Japanese candy buying incident a success. So far the runaway winner is green mochi (sweet rice paste) with sweet red bean paste inside. That stuff ranks right up there with chocolate for me.

On this day we hiked Mt. Takao. Driving there was an experience. You drive on the left side of the road and the car, and for a while all the cars look really wrong and turning right feels like driving headlong into oncoming traffic. All the buildings are generally Western, and no one has dryers, so there are a lot of clothing lines and futons laid out to air on porches. Personal space is very cramped, one house commonly holds several generations (though that is quickly becoming less common, apartments are still small), and the infamous "love hotels" are actually "supposed to" cater to married couples trying to get away for an evening rather than the actual generally thought uses of lovers and prostitutes (prostitution is illegal in Japan). Vending machines are every ten feet, accompanied often by a recycling bin, and appeared to be filled predominantly with juice, tea, and hot coffee rather than soda.

It was amazingly hot and humid. First purchases included a paper fan and a little washcloth. The paper fan was in use the whole time. The washcloth is key. If you ever visit Japan, bring one with you, or buy one when you get there. I recommend the ones with Totoro on them. SO CUTE.

You will need this washcloth for a variety of things. Like other froods who know where their towels are, most Japanese carry them to:
1) Wipe away sweat. It's not really socially good to be dripping. And you WILL be dripping in the summer, it's over 90 and 90% humidity most of the time. When it's not raining.
2) Dry your hands. Especially important because, though there are loads of public restrooms and they are immaculately clean, they have NO PAPER PRODUCTS. This means (a) BYO Toilet paper (though now most restrooms stock it), and (b) you will use the washcloth to dry your hands after washing.
3) Use as a napkin. In Japanese dining you get a little damp napkin to wipe your hands on before you eat. And no other napkins. Use your washcloth for mishaps.


(Told you Totoro was cute!)

Anyway. Mt. Takao. You can hike the whole way, but most people save themselves the first very steep 40 minutes and take a cable car, or even better, a chair lift!!! We took the lift.


(You are now halfway up the mountain. Ish)

A little beyond this the trail began. And it's COVERED in restaurants. You know the hike will be long when there's restaurants halfway up. But really, I've found that many Japanese like to travel to these shrines on kind of hiking sightseeing/praying expeditions, so little restaurants and souvenier shops make a lot of sense. About 3/4 of the way up we came to the main shrine/temple complex.


(Though PZ would like this one, it's a lucky squid shrine!!! You rub it for luck. Or, if you don't believe in such things, you admire it as a dang fine looking statue)

A note on shrines and temples: The main religion of Japan is Shinto. If you are born in Japan, you are Shinto by default. It's more of a set of practices rather than a religion in the way we think about it. There's no day of rest, though there are plenty of fun holidays. No profession of faith is required, just practice. There are shrines EVERYWHERE (if it's called a shrine, it's Shinto, if it's called a temple, it's Buddhist). Shintoism basically infuses everything with a kami, or spirit. Everything means you, me, mountains, that tree, etc. Particular places (shrines) are designated for the interaction between you and the spirits, and these are often associated with natural settings like mountains. The whole thing is pretty unorganized, but any religion that encourages you to hike in the woods and maybe get an ice cream and a souvenir on your way back seems pretty cool.

Most major shrines are also associated with a temple, which is Buddhist. Because Shinto is spiritual, they don't have a problem with another layer of religion, and so many Japanese are also Buddhist and practice some kinds of ancestor worship, and many Buddhist temples are associated with major shrines.

When you arrive at a temple/shrine complex, you'll often see these:

These are slats with people's names on them and are used to denote people who left money to the shrine.

At the entrance, you will see a huge gate with two bars on the top. Like this:

That's the simple version. They can also get elaborate like this:

This is the gate between the human world and the world where you can communicate with the kami. If it's associated with a Buddhist temple, there will also be temple guardians next to the gate, like so:


(Intrepid Neuron is not scared of the guardian. The trembling is just cause it was a long hike. Right??)

Guardians come in animal and human forms, depicting great warriors, one of the traditional guardians of Buddhism, or something else. One will have its mouth closed, the other will have its mouth open. The closed mouth doesn't allow evil spirits to enter, while the open mouth allows good spirits in.

When you go inside, there will be a little rock pool or fountain with long handled cups. This is to ritually wash your hands (also it feels very good in the summer). Use the scoop and pour some water over your left and then your right hand. Do NOT do this over the water trough, there's a place on the ground in front of you for the water you used.

The shrine area on Mt. Takao is actually a whole mass of loads of shrines going up the mountain.

Around most of the shrines you'll find LARGE barrels. These are barrels of sake, which is donated to the priests who keep the shrines. There are also loads of statues, inside and outside the shrines, many of which wear hats or aprons, though we never managed to find out why.

We then continued the climb to the actual top of the mountain, which was VERY muddy, and very hazy. I then got a popsicle shaped like a slice of watermelon which was melon flavored with chocolate "seeds". On the way back DOWN we stopped at one of the mountain side restaurants and had lunch. I got onigiri! Onigiri are little round or triangular balls of rice wrapped in seaweed, with things on the inside, like salmon, salmon roe, tuna, or in my case, pickled plums. And it was GREAT. I did discover though, if it can be pickled, the Japanese will pickle it. I had pickled WATERMELON. The owner of the store was so thrilled I liked her onigiri (she proudly said she made them herself) that she brought me free extra. :) After lunch we were encouraged to write out wishes on pieces of paper and tie them to a tree outside, where they will come true following the big summer festival on July 7.


(Examples of things that are pickled. The numbers are the prices in yen, which is roughly like 100 yen to something like $1.50 right now)

Just opposite from the base of the mountain there's a "Trick Art" museum, which is tons of paintings that look 3-D (with you in them) when you photograph them from certain angles. It was definitely amusing, though a small child bumped head first into my knees and then looked up, and up, and UP, and stared like she had never seen such a giant. Honey, I ain't THAT tall...

We finished out the day at a restaurant that would NEVER make it in the US, where they bring you raw meat and you cook it to your liking on a charcoal grill at your table. That one was loads of fun, but the whitish lumps? Those are fat. JUST fat. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Side note: as I was writing this originally, I tried to eat a honey pickled plum. That's a bit much for 5am.

Ok, I had no idea this was going to be so much!!! MORE next time. And faster. Honest.

PS: They have vending machines for EVERYTHING. Including Hello Kitty popcorn.


(don't come to close, you'll hit a sensor and the dang thing will sing at you)

11 responses so far

  • SciMom says:

    Welcome home, Sci! Love the pictures. Description of all that food made me seriously hungry for sushi. 90% humidity? Sci needs to spend some more summers in the SC. We sneer at 90%. 90% is for wimps.

    Yay paper fans, little towels, pickled food, and walking a lot.

  • Janne says:

    Hi, and fun that you found your way to this corner of the world!

    Just a couple of clarifications, for the record:

    "In the US, you walk on the left and stand on the right. In Japan, you walk on the right and stand on the left. And you get MAJOR glares if you don't."

    In Tokyo, that is. In Osaka - and in Kansai in general - you walk on the left and stand on the right. What about Kyoto, which is in Kansai but is the topmost tourist destination in the country with lots of Tokyo visitors? Confusion reigns supreme.

    "Public Displays of Affection are very NOT done. Don't hold hands too much, don't hug, and if you're going to kiss in public, get a room. These rules are bent for the young."

    Again, in Tokyo. Osaka is generally more easygoing, and you can be quite affectionate without anybody raising an eyebrow.

    Oh, and love hotels really are mostly for lovers and couples. Prostitutes have their own places and will not generally be admitted; love hotels are sort of skirting the law already so they tend to be quite strict about this point to avoid trouble. Put it this way: imagine you're in your mid-20's, and both you and your long-time boyfriend will live at home with your respective parents until you marry. Where are you going to go?

    • scicurious says:

      We didn't get to Osaka, and in Kyoto people did tend to stay to the left for standing. But they could all have been Tokyo tourists. :)

      Yes, I got the impression love hotels were mostly for younger couples. Aren't there some where you can get keys and stuff from a vending machine?

  • The food is actually pretty nicely plastinated.

    Actually, all the plastic food in Japan is made solely from plastic, and is not plastinated real food. Amazing, but true.

    And I am not at all surprised that the onigiri shop owner gave you extra when you expressed pleasure at eating it. Hospitality to strangers is a huge thing in Japan, and if it is clear that you are a foreign tourist, you will be treated amazingly. (If you are a foreigner actually working in Japan, not so much.)

  • kristin says:

    Japanese school girls really DO dress like that. I thought the cartoon world was exaggerating. Nope, the skirts get THAT short.

    actually, all the skirts are middle-of-the-knee or longer. the girls just roll them up a lot (if they're not at school -- at school they'd get in trouble for it)!

    I did discover though, if it can be pickled, the Japanese will pickle it. I had pickled WATERMELON.

    i just did a lesson that included vegetables last week, and apparently in science classes they teach that watermelons are vegetables.

  • Coturnix says:

    Awesome pictures and story!

    I live watermelon pickle. They make watermelon preserve where I come from as well - very sweet and yummy.

  • gerty-z says:

    sounds like a fantastic trip!

  • serialhex says:

    japan looks AWESOME!!! i can't wait to read about the rest! and intrepid neuron rocks!! why haven't you told us about him/her before?? :P

    (and btw: the exploded versions of intrepid neuron & the guardian and the fountain with long-handled cups don't work. just fyi)

  • Tideliar says:

    Damn, i took Intrepid Neurone to the UK and Italy with me but didn't get no pictures of him :/

    I really need to blog that trip sometime...

  • Mu2 says:

    Sci, enjoy your blog, and culture it digs. The Korean place above Wagamama, at Harvard square, in Cambridge, MA; thats where you get the cook-your-own-raw-meat experience.

  • daveintokyo says:

    You are wrong about what side to walk on. It always depends on the right of way laws in each country, thus, the cars in the USA drive on the right, so you walk to the right. in Japan the cars drive on the left, so you walk to the left. Otherwise, you will have stupid people running into you