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Trip 13 -- Japan

Message 3: Something's fishy from Kyushu to Tokyo

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Sun, 21 Mar 2010 10:44:22
Subject: Japan update #3: Something's fishy from Kyushu to Tokyo

My plan was to get on the train in Osaka, wake up in Kyushu -- Japan's southernmost main island -- and have it be all warm and sunny. But of course it didn't turn out that way. It was chilly and dreary when I disembarked in Beppu, a seaside town known for its hot springs and the quality of its fugu, the deadly pufferfish that I'd wanted to try ever since I read an article about it when I was around ten.

There are two kinds of hot springs in Beppu: the jigoku, springs to look at, and the onsen, springs you bathe in. The latter are ubiquitous in Japan, but people flock to Beppu to see the human-crafted jigoku, where gardens, sculptures, and zoos are built around the steaming water. There are a whole bunch of jigoku, each with its own theme, but it took me only one to get the idea. I didn't need to see hot water come out of a dragon's mouth or shoot out of a fountain, or whatever happened at the others, to appreciate the natural wonder of geothermally heated water. More fun to be in it, I thought, and so I hit up a couple of the onsen, one of which was outdoors and had a good view of the Pacific Ocean and a sports team practicing on the beach.

Fugu is a potentially lethal fish that must be carefully prepared by a licensed chef, who cuts out the toxins before serving it. If the fish is improperly handled, death occurs in just a few minutes. As an extra precaution for the country, the emperor is forbidden from consuming it.

I hoped it wasn't a bad omen when I left my room at the Hotel Aile and the piped-in music in the elevator hallway was the theme from "Mash," also known as "Suicide Is Painless." And the cleansing pre-dinner towl they brought me at Fugu Matsu was almost hot enough to burn my hands. They also insisted for some reason that I sit facing away from the other diners, who left shortly after I got there at eight, leaving me as the last customer in the restaurant (it took me that long to realize that the Japanese eat early).

I got the fugu set meal, featuring just about every edible part of the fugu, and far and away the best part was the liver. It was white and creamy and tasted like bone marrow. The kimoae -- a mixture of skin, firm meat, and soft liver -- was also tasty. And the milt -- "mail fugu's egg," according to the menu -- oozed out from a white U-shaped skin and tasted sort of like a cross between yogurt and clam chowder. I washed all this down with a drink of fugu fin in sake. The music playing here was "Lush Life" -- more appropriate, I thought.

The other parts of the fugu weren't as intriguing. The sashimi was chewy and not as flavorful as some fish; the two kinds of fried fugu were tasty but I wouldn't go out of my way for them; the chiri (soup made from fugu meat and vegetables) and the zousui (rice and egg added to the left-over broth from the chiri) overwhelmed the taste of the fish. But I'd go back for that liver any day.

The fastest way from Beppu to Kumamoto, as Hyperdia had it, was to go back up the eastern coast to the northernmost part of Kyushu and then swing down the other side. But the train north disagreed. It left on time but was soon running a half-hour behind, which meant I'd miss my connection and be delayed at least an hour. And I realized I wasn't in a hurry to get to Kumamoto. More scenic, I thought, would be to take the slower line across Kyushu and make a stop on the way at Mount Aso, a volcano with scenery and good hiking -- if the weather cooperated and the cable car up to the rim was running.

I abandoned the northbound train at a place called Usa, where I had 20 minutes to explore its fine collection of gas stations and buy an enormous apple from a produce market so unkempt that it was impossible to walk through the aisles without tripping over boxes. The train back to Beppu left on time, giving me just enough time to pick up lunch at a supermarket -- including one of those giant pieces of curly, tentacled octopus that I'd been dying to sink my teeth into -- before catching the train heading west.

I got off at Aso, but the volcano was shrouded in fog, and it was snowing and windy. I was examining a tourist map at the station when I was interrupted.

"Can I help you?" another tourist asked.

"I'm wondering whether it's worth going up there today."

"It isn't," she said. "My parents and I just came from there. The ropeway isn't running. You could take the bus up and have a look around, I suppose." The fog didn't make that idea very exciting.

It transpired that she was from Moscow State University and was studying in Tokyo for a year. "Do you like it?" I asked.

"Mm, mm," she said, not quite nodding, not quite shaking her head, in that noncommital way that Russians talk until they know you better. "My parents and I have two hours here until our train to Beppu." There wasn't much to do in the town of Aso itself.

"Long wait. Beppu is nice, though."

"I want to take a sand bath."

"I didn't get to do that" -- I was saving that for later -- "but there's a nice onsen by the sea." I showed her where it was on the map.

I could have taken the next local train west, but the one after that was listed on the schedule as "Vintage Locomotive (Aso 1962)," so I thought I'd see what that was all about. With two hours to kill in a snowy town, what was I to do? I made like the locals and went to the onsen. This one also had an outdoor section, and it was fun to soak in steaming, hot water, with snowflakes lightly prickling my face, while looking up at branches with little icicles dangling from them like clear Christmas-tree lights. 

The vintage train didn't exist, it turned out, so I waited another half-hour for the next one. It was a dramatic ride, with sheer rock on both sides, temples and shrines built into the rock, and the volcano barely visible in the distance; then the train wound its way along a river, sometimes crossing it just above the rushing water, and sometimes perched on a ridge high above it and high above the towns the train served, as if the point of this line were more to give riders a view than to provide convenient transportation to the towns' residents. Late in the journey, we entered a tunnel, and when we emerged there was clear weather and yellow flowers.

Kumamoto was a stopping-off point before the overnight train to Kagoshima and then onward to Ibusuki, another hot-springs resort town way in the south of Kyushu. It was the late afternoon when I arrived in Kumamoto, and I had a little time to check out its fine castle, even if I was too late to go inside. Kumamoto is known for its horse meat, and so I pigged out on grill-your-own at a fun restaurant called Daikokuten Kozo, with some help from the next man at the bar, who helped me figure out "horse liver," "horse heart," "horse tongue," and "horse intestine," as well as "pork stomach." I seemed to be the only one with a fire so lively that a flame shot up every time I put a piece of meat on the grill, but then again, I did have a train to catch, so it was helpful that the meat cooked in just a few seconds.

It was finally warm in Ibusuki, a quiet town known mainly for its natural sand baths. You go down to the beach and attendants with shovels bury you in hot sand, which is supposed to have a therapeutic effect by increasing blood flow and driving out toxins. "Ten minutes," my attendant told me, but I stayed for about a half-hour. The sand seemed to undulate around me, pulsing and pinching me gently and pleasantly.

Ibusuki is near a 5000-year-old volcanic lake, Ikeda, the home of huge eels and its own version of the Lock Ness Monster, called Issie, a legend first seen in 1978. The eels grow to about six feet and 45 pounds, and they're kind of cute, with shiny, cobalt-blue eyes and big side fins like floppy dog ears. They don't serve 'em up for dinner, though. As I walked along the promenade by Ikeda, women in broad hats were planting neat rows of flowers, and the air had a fresh, mulchy smell.

My lodging in Ibusuki, the Minshuku Marutomi, was recommended for its seafood dinners. I entered the dining room, along with a couple from near Tokyo, and found on my table a large whole crab, so red and shiny it seemed lacquered, and two snails. Then the owner brought out sashimi of tuna, octopus, bream, sweet shrimp, and shiny sardines. I thought there couldn't be much more, but then came chawanmushi (custard casserole), crab miso soup, half a pollack with ginger and tofu, and a stew with meat and potatoes. Breakfast featured horse mackerel, root vegetables, Hokkaido seaweed, and rice, topped with a raw egg.

After breakfast I had a walk along the lane between the resort hotels and the bay. It was cloudy but warm, and I tried to savor the last moments in this tranquility before heading back north. A sign on the pathway warned of crabs ahead (and perhaps a sign later on warned crabs of me), and then the pathway abruptly ended, with a drop-off into a construction zone.

This was it, I thought, the Farthest Extremity Point of this trip. Almost every trip has one -- a point where I've reached the end of my realm of exploration, where I'm not going to take any steps farther. After this, it would feel like I was heading home. Sure, I'd visit a few -jimas and -shimas and then have a couple of days in Tokyo, but there was no going beyond the Farthest Extremity Point.

To the left were the sand baths and, much farther away, a series of cliffs and a radio or TV tower. In front of me were layers of mountains in decreasing shades of haze, like scrims. On the right, a ship disappeared around the peninsula. Behind me were the hotels and a row of tropical trees. As if welcoming me to my Farthest Extremity Point, the sun came out for a few minutes, and the water sparkled. I stayed there for a few minutes and then, at 10:06 last Friday morning, March 12, I began the journey home, as it were. As if to confirm this, the clouds closed up around the sun immediately as I began the walk back to the Marutomi.

In Kagoshima, I visited the Sengan-en, an area that has served, in its 350-year-old history, as an industrial complex, a garden, and the home of the Shimazu feudal clan. Now it's a public garden, with winding streams, steep pathways, old gates, pretty bridges, nature walks, and the original villa itself. Most interesting were the 11-meter-long "Sengin Gan" Chinese characters etched into a rock face high above the garden -- it took 3900 workers three months to accomplish this in 1814 -- and the stream where gatherings were held. Sake was floated down the stream on wooden boards, and the challenge was to compose a poem before the sake reached you. Having accomplished this, you were allowed to drink.

A ferry ride away from Kagoshima is the island of Sakurajima, a very active volcano -- there had been 364 eruptions this year as of March 12, and there were 755 last year. They're obviously small eruptions, but there's a near-permanent spiral of smoke coming out of Sakurajima. I had a walk along the island up to a viewpoint over a field of lava. This all used to be water until Sakurajima's last major eruption, in 1914, which extended the land area with falling lava. The rock formations were scenic in the late-afternoon sun, and Japanese knotweed and black pine were growing among the lava, part of a 200-year natural succession of increasingly large plants following a volcanic wipeout.

I spent the next morning in Hiroshima at the Peace Memorial Park, learning about all the earth-changing events of August 6, 1945. In the middle of the park is an eternal flame. Nearby is a children's monument in memory of a girl who developed fatal leukemia and constructed more than a thousand auspicious paper cranes in a fruitless effort to recover; people still contribute their own paper cranes in honor of her efforts. Just outside the park is the A-bomb Dome, a shell of an exhibition pavilion that was one of the few buildings that weren't completely leveled by the attack.

There was much on view at the Peace Memorial Museum. There was plenty of history told, but two spots in the museum particularly caught my attention. One was a huge panoramic photograph of the city a little while after the attack. Only a handful of buildings withstood the bombing; most noticeable in the photograph is that there really wasn't anything there. Everything was gone in an instant. The second spot, among the exhibits of tattered clothing and charred personal effects, were the hair, skin, and fingernails of a boy who had tried to walk home after being burned. It's thought that he was so dehydrated that he tried to suck his own pus from the skin falling off his body.

There were plenty of horror stories told, of people walking around like zombies with dangling skin, people jumping into the boiling river in a futile attempt to cool down, people lined up for medicinal supplies that had already run out. The bomb instantly sent surface temperatures to 3000 to 4000 degrees Celsius, and I cannot conceive of what that might feel like. Of the 350,000 people in Hiroshima that day, forty percent died by the end of 1945.

Miyajima is Hiroshima's neighboring island, and here's where I got to see the world's largest wooden rice scooper (at 7.7 meters and 2.5 tons -- the rice scooper was invented in Miyajima) and finally got my long hike in. It took about an hour of steep climbing to ascend Mount Misen, which is inhabited by tame deer and monkeys. I didn't see any monkeys, but there were plenty of deer. One tourist at the top maliciously fed the deer paper, thinking it was cute to watch them eat it -- I have to assume that he then had the same himself for dinner. Atop the mountain were great views of Hiroshima and of the smaller outlying islands. When I got back to the bottom, it was almost sunset, and I stood there by Miyajima's iconic orange shrine gate, which stands in the water. A mountain on the mainland cradled the sun for a few moments in a ball-shaped ledge along its slope, and then it dropped it down over the horizon.

On Miyajima, I sampled some of Hiroshima's famous large oysters -- some raw, some grilled. And before my overnight train to Tokyo I tried Hiroshima's version of the okonomiyaki, the filled pancake I'd had in Osaka. In Hiroshima they add noodles to the mix, and there's a building with three stories just of okonomiyaki stalls. I picked the stall with the most-boisterous customers, a group from near Tokyo. They said they were firefighters, but that didn't really explain why they were in Hiroshima. The loudest and drunkest of the group had a name that seemed to get longer each time he said it, and basically the only words he knew in English were "Me too!"

"I'm from New York," I said.

"I'm from Washington!" he pretended.

"That's where I've seen you!" I said.

"Me too!"

"You are dangerous," I said in Japanese.

"Me too!"

And so it went.

I chose the Ginza Capital Hotel Annex

in Tokyo, partly because I found a good rate and partly because of its proximity to Japan's main fish market. I arrived at the hotel at around seven-thirty Sunday morning, ripe with the dirt of a series of two overnight trains

and excursions among lava fields and up volcanoes.

"I have a reservation," I said. "Seth Weinstein."

The clerk looked it up. "Yes," he said. "For two nights."

Usually at that point the clerk gives you a key or takes your bag until check-in time. But all he said was, "May I help you?"

"I guess it's too early to check in," I hinted. It had seemed to me that Japanese business hotels were fussy about adhering to the check-in time, even if rooms were available earlier.

"Check-in time -- two o'clock," he said.

"I see," I said, and I stalled for a minute. "Is there a shower in the room?" I couldn't remember whether this hotel had showers in the rooms or in the hallway. If it was the latter, maybe I could use it.

"In the room," he said.

"Is there a bathroom I could use here?"

"Yes! That way."

"Can you tell me what room I'm in? I'd like to be on a high floor, if it's available."

"I see." He punched some things into the computer and then handed me the key to room 1157.

"I can go up now?"


Well, that was a nice turn of events. I took a long shower and prepared to hit the town.

My friend Kira, from Copenhagen, moved to Tokyo at the beginning of March to be an intern for a company trying to encourage Japanese tourism in Scandinavia. We had sushi near the fish market and then, because I consider her an expert on Tokyo (her having been there for two weeks and all), she showed me around the city a bit. We started at the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, where there's a free observatory; then we walked from the high-energy area of Shinjuku down through Harajuku, where teens play dress-up on weekends and pose for tourists, ending with a cocoa and creme brulee at a cafe overlooking the busy crossroads in Shibuya. She had to leave after that, but I stayed to check out some of Shibuya's unusual department stores.

I have another friend in Tokyo, Pat, who was on the Harvard Glee Club tour with me in Japan 17 years ago. After college he hung out with a friend in Tokyo for a little while, learned the language, and stayed there. He now has a wife and two kids and lives in central Tokyo, and he works as a performer, often as part of a comedy duo, sometimes taking other acting or emceeing jobs. He occupies an unique niche, and I didn't realize how well-known his face was around the city until people started recognizing him on the street and saying hello.

He treated me to a sushi lunch, and our discussion turned to the Japanese language. Pat speaks fluent Japanese quickly and with a deep, resonant voice. I studied it for a year in college and forgot most of it, but I can still read -- if rarely understand -- two of the three writing systems. This has helped in train stations and on restaurant menus that use hiragana (the syllabary for native Japanese words) or katakana (the syllabary for foreign words), but when things are written in kanji -- which is based on Chinese characters rather than syllables -- I'm usually at a loss.

"One year of Japanese class wasn't enough to learn five thousand kanji, or whatever it is that you need to get by," I told Pat.

"It's not that many," he said. "You can get by with a thousand, maybe fifteen hundred, kanji. Five thousand is what they'd ask you for on the standard kanji test, to pass the maximum level. But they'll ask you for the kanji that nobody uses. For instance, 'teyburu' -- the word for 'table' -- is a borrowed word. It's usually written in katakana. But they'll say, 'What's the kanji for "teyburu"?' Or, 'What's the kanji for "Schwarzenegger"?' Nobody uses that!"

"How would you do on the kanji test?"

"I could probably pass level five -- that's about a thousand kanji. That's all you really need. The problem is the writing. If it were just reading, I'd be fine. But you have to do the strokes in the right order."

"They watch you?"

"No, but they can tell."

We walked up past the soon-to-be-reconstructed kabuki theatre in Ginza, which looks sort of like a hybrid building with a Japanese roof and European columns, and then went on to the Sony Building. They're getting ready to release a TV set that supports three-dimensional broadcasting and yes, that requires wearing special glasses. A normal program looked funny in 3D, but a program featuring African safari animals looked better, if still a little unusual, and animation looked the best. In their theatre they were showing a 3D broadcast of a concert. Pat had been the emcee.

Pat left for a film shoot, and I spent the rest of my last full day zooming around the city, enjoying some of Tokyo's quirky stores and market areas. Here's a street with all musical instruments; there's a street with all restaurant supplies. I checked out the electronics in the famous Akihabara area and marveled at the six-story buildings selling anime items. A fun, crowded store called Don Quijote sold novelty items, fun clothing, costume-play items, games, toys, and discount supplies and electronics. Harajuku Kiddy Land was patronized by kids and adults alike. I normally hate shopping, but I let myself get carried away.

I ate simply in Tokyo. I could have splashed out on fancy meals -- there are plenty of multiple-Michelin-star restaurants -- but what I wanted was the basics done well. I slurped ramen at Gifuya, in an alley of tiny restaurant stalls along the Shinjuku train tracks known variously as Memory Lane or Piss Alley. And for my final dinner in Japan, I just wanted good sushi, and a lot of it. Hina Sushi delivered that with its all-you-can-eat deal, which included toppings I hadn't gotten to try elsewhere, at least not knowingly: butterfish, half beak, bigfin squid, crab tomalley, red ark shell, pen shell, spotted shad, monkfish liver, and vegetables such as gourd and burdock root. Their fatty tuna was especially good. They had an English menu and everything was of high quality.

At night, Sapporo had had its elevators and Osaka its alleys. Tokyo had plenty of both, but its most atmospheric night area was an area of a few little alleys called the Golden Gai. It felt like a secret enclave of little bars and restaurants (which of course it wasn't, being listed in the guidebooks). Many of the bars on the first floor of the little buildings had room for only about ten people. The second-floor bars were reached by steep staircases hidden behind doors or leading up directly from the street. The bars had names such as Golden Dust, Death Match, and Kangaroo Court Decision. Some seemed to have no names; only the sound of merriment behind

closed doors confirmed that they were part of the party. I settled into a friendly-looking place called Albatross. Its interior was all red, and it doubled as an art gallery, with a tiny second-floor bar and an even tinier third-floor attic with just a couple of tables.

The Golden Gai is located next to a tranquil pathway. I followed the pathway to the end and emerged into a glitzier area where the bars had names such as Philippine Club Golden Lips, Shangrila, and Fantasy. Clearly the purpose was different here. "You want a massage?" "Check out my bar. One hour, four thousand four hundred. All you can drink, all you can touch." "What kind of place are you looking for?"

"Home," I replied, and I hurried to the subway before it closed for the night.

Some of my most important sightseeing in Japan occurred on my last morning in the country. The Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholesale Market, better known as the Tsukiji Fish Market, is the world's largest seafood market. I arrived at 5:15 in the morning, and it was already in full swing: bumper-dented forklifts zooming around through narrow alleys, people slicing huge fish with electric saws, vendors with the ocean's wealth proudly and colorfully displayed in front of them. There seemed to be no logical arrangement of the vendors, so I wandered without much direction, ducking out of the paths of the forklifts and rushing vendors and inevitably ending up in someone else's way.

At the back of the market I found the two auction areas. In the live-fish market, around 30 buyers were standing on raised platforms, like a choir, facing the auctioneer. He was talking a mile a minute and somehow keeping track of the buyers' hand signals.

In the tuna auction, rows and rows of massive frozen tuna were lying on the ground in a room about half the size of a football field. The fish were already gutted, with stickers showing their weight, their tails dangling, almost cut off. I was standing next to a typically sized tuna of 97.4 kilograms. Buyers were walking around, inspecting the tuna with flashlights and pick axes and taking notes. An auctioneer rang a bell, summoning the buyers to a particular row. For each fish he sang out a long introductory note, like a trumpet call, and then launched into an animated series of barking, jumping, and dancing. The buyers gave their hand signals and within a few seconds he was on to the next fish. These are pricy animals: A particularly giant specimen sold for $177,000 earlier this year.

The tuna auction ended at about 6:30, and I explored the rest of the market, enjoying the unparalleled variety of items on sale: giant scallops, red-grooved clams, cuttlefish with large black eyes, squid in vats of ink, needle-nose fish, sea cucumbers, shrimp with marble patterns, lumpy masses of clams, prawns with vibrant blue and yellow tails -- colors I hadn't seen outside an aquarium. One guy had huge sprawls of perfectly curled octopus; I was in awe that nature could create such patterns and shapes. Five-thousand-yen slices of tuna with gorgeous striated shades of red were displayed in a locked glass case, the way liquor stores lock away their priciest wines -- and the seller shooed me away when I tried to peruse them.

And I saw more Western tourists in the market than I'd seen anywhere else in Japan. One petite Scandinavian-looking blonde had just entered the market when she was splashed by water from a bucket of thrashing fish. She screamed and ran out until her boyfriend convinced her to come back and explore.

A few vendors sold dried seafood products. I bought some tiny dried crabs, a couple of kinds of squid, and some smoked octopus and was proud to contribute to the Tsukiji Fish Market's economy.

I've been back in New York City for a few days. I haven't had a craving for Japanese food yet, but I'm sure it won't be long before I'll have a hankering for sushi and be looking for okonomiyaki in New York. I suppose I'll have to go back to Japan for fugu liver. And will I ever find that little sushi bar in Osaka again?