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Trip 16 -- Inner Indochina and Japan

Part 3: Omotenashi
30 June 2014

Shortly after landing in Japan, Charlie said, "This is the one place where I can cheer up by going to the bathroom."

Before flying to Osaka, we had one final day in Bangkok, during which we attempted to adhere to some seemingly arbitrary dress codes. At the Grand Palace, with its glittering spires, emerald Buddha, Ramayana murals, and hodgepodge of colorful outbuildings, they barked at Charlie because of her calf-length pants but allowed other women to enter in skirts of similar length. (They did lend her a free skirt to remedy the infraction.) While she had a snack, I had a look nearby at the giant reclining Buddha and the mother-of-pearl scenes embedded into his feet.

We headed to Lumphini Park for a late-afternoon stroll past hundreds of participants in a lively aerobics workout and stopped at a pond to view a pair of lethargic-looking monitor lizards -- we weren't even sure they were alive until they tilted their heads after a few minutes. To round out our Indochina experience, we walked the 25 minutes -- we might have taken a bus or even a cab, but walking was faster than sitting in traffic -- to the 63rd-floor Sky Bar, for a wide-open view of Bangkok. We'd tried to go on our first day in the city, but they hadn't liked our backpackers' clothes, so this time we were prepared. We put on proper pants and shirts and Charlie eschewed her pink sneakers for stylish flip-flops. To our astonishment they wanted the sneakers on instead, but at least they let us in.

I don't need much of an excuse to go to Japan. I sneaked it in at the end of last year's trip, and I explored it for a month a few years ago. I was eager to share it with someone, and I was relieved that Charlie immediately loved the country as much as I do.

Everything works there. There are no bad meals. The streets are clean, and white-gloved officers wave pedestrians past construction zones. Trains run on time. The toilets open themselves and spray water in the right places, and they make babbling-brook sounds to get you in the mood and mask the sound of your achievements. And Japan is no longer much more expensive than New York, as it seemed on my first trip in 1993. There's been virtually zero inflation in the past 20 years, and U.S. prices have caught up.

The people are polite and honest and have an overwhelming sense of "omotenashi," hospitality. When Charlie and I visited Osaka Castle, there was an announcement: "Someone has left some change in the vending machine at the ticket office. Please go to the front entrance to claim it." I am certain that only the proper people returned to reclaim what may have been a considerable amount: I had bought our two tickets with the equivalent of a $100 note -- used much more commonly in everyday transactions than we do in the USA -- and received $88 back from the machine. (The castle's original builder wasn't such a nice guy: After nobly adopting scores of children and failing to conceive with his wife, he had a son with his concubine and killed off his closest family for fear of retaliation against the new heir. His son then lost the castle, which was mostly destroyed and rebuilt a couple of decades later. The castle incorporates about a half-million stones, the largest of which weighs around 130 tons.)

In Osaka, we walked around and ate everything: Steaming battered octopus balls on the street. The best okonomiyaki I'd had -- a kind of cabbage cole slaw mixed with a fresh raw egg, fried on a griddle and topped with sweet sauce and bonito flakes. Lunch at Freshness Burger -- ostensibly the chain covers its large burgers with wrappers containing a picture of a face, so that women can conceal their own mouths when they eat, thus avoiding transgressions of etiquette. However, the wrapper seemed to be lacking when we visited.

We went to my favorite four-seat sushi restaurant and pointed at whatever fish looked interesting. The chef had trouble explaining "shirako," and the other diners gestured around their abdominal areas. It was a kind of crispy ball, creamy on the inside, and a delicate balance of sweet, sour, and salty. I looked it up later and discovered it was cod semen.

At night, we poked our heads into bars that we thought might welcome us -- you can't tell from the outside whether a place is for members only or whether there's anyone in there at all (unless there's loud karaoke going on). I opened the door to Ton Ton and it seemed to be a private party, but when I closed the door the owner came rushing out and waved us in. There were only about 12 people inside, singing karaoke and pouring drinks off of platters. The owner brought us a plate with a bottle of whiskey and canister of ice, along with a plate of nuts -- nearly all bar drinks in Japan come with an obligatory snack.

She poured Charlie a minuscule amount and me a regular serving; when she turned her head I topped off Charlie's glass. Charlie searched the karaoke index and found the one song she knew in Japanese: "The Real Folk Blues." She sang it out and wowed the other patrons. Most of the others left shortly thereafter, but the owner and two other impeccably dressed women -- maybe family members, maybe other bar staff -- stayed with us and practiced their English. At around three in the morning -- we had no idea it had gotten so late -- the owner apologized for having to close up shop; we all walked out together and they rode home on their bicycles. The owner refused to take any money from me.

When we weren't eating or drinking in Osaka, we went bowling and visited an arcade to play a kind of drumming game (like Guitar Hero but with drums) and a hyper version of air hockey, with around 20 pucks. We took a day trip to Kyoto, visited temples and shrines, and watched two cats yell at and fight with each other along the otherwise serene Path of Philosophy.

In Tokyo, we celebrated Father's Day with my college friend Pat, who moved to Japan shortly after graduating and is now an entertainer there. A couple of his friends joined us, along with all their kids, for a barbecue including sausage, two kinds of fish, chicken cartilage, and beautiful blossom-shaped maitake mushrooms. While the kids shot felt bullets out of plastic guns and played on the trampoline, our discussion turned to the Japanese language, which Pat had taught himself.

I'd taken a year-long class in college and been surprised by some of the features of Japanese. First, it uses the same word for "blue" and "green." Second, there are different words for counting things depending on the shapes of the things being counted. Leafing through my textbook I'd seen a vocabulary list containing "a little," "please wait," "exactly," "same." All perfectly useful words. But then, "five bound volumes," "three thin, flat objects," "two long, cylindrical objects." What?

It seemed cumbersome to me. But Pat said, "We do the same thing in English without realizing it. You'd say, 'A piece of cake and a cup of coffee.' You wouldn't say, 'One cake and one coffee.'"

Pat's friend Gae, who moved to Japan on a whim to join the circus as a clown, said, "Japanese also is a bit vague. It omits a lot of words."

It does, but Pat explained that the meaning is always clear: "In English, you'd ask, 'Did you try the maitake mushrooms?' But in Japanese, you'd just say, 'Tabeta,' which just means, 'Ate?' It's clear from context that we're taking about the maitake mushrooms. I'm obviously talking to you. I inflect it as a question. So, in other words, 'ate' is enough."

We stayed near the bustling Roppongi area, near a sign that ominously said, "Evacuation area: Aoyama Cemetery." We popped into my favorite department store, Don Quijote, where Charlie stumbled upon a product that I searched for last fall and couldn't find. It's a toy called Happy Kitchen, and it consists of plastic utensils and pouches of powder that, when added to water and assembled properly, turn into a miniature edible meal.

She bought the hamburger and cake kits and prepared them when we got home. The hamburger version had pouches of powdered ketchup, burger, bun, fries, cheese, and cola. The requisite amount of water (measured in the accompanying tiny scoop) was added to each, and some were put in the microwave oven for a few seconds. The fries were cut up with the tiny knife and put into the tiny container, folded and held together with tape. She sliced the burger into four pieces so that the cheese (molded with her fingers) could be topped with ketchup and put between two patties on each of the two burgers -- this was art! There were even little flags to be attached to toothpicks and staked into the burger buns.

Everything smelled kind of foul as it was being prepared, but by golly, everything tasted pretty much like it was supposed to. The fries were kind of soft, not very salty, and the burger -- who knows what was really in it? -- actually tasted something like meat, at least as much as in a fast-food joint. The ketchup was pretty accurate ("This is just powered umami," Charlie said when she opened the packet), and the cola powder fizzed when she added the water. The cake kit turned out to be a strawberry shortcake; it was oozy and sweet, with a very strong strawberry smell, and came with appropriate decorative elements, even a notecard.

We did a lot of walking around in Tokyo, and Charlie's feet were hurting. A love hotel came to the rescue. We went in and perused the pictures of hourly rooms; I noticed "rainbow jet bath" among the amenities, and within a few minutes we were soaking in the tub. The room had been freshly cleaned, with folded linens and bottles of body lotions. There were also condoms and a menu of sex toys, plus a console by the bed that suggested it had the capability of various kinds of vibration patterns, and a TV set that we never quite figured out. The concept of the love hotels is a very smart one. In such a crowded country, they give couples some privacy from anywhere from one hour to overnight, with prices marked at the entrance for a "rest" or a "stay." Some have theme rooms and free snacks in the lobby, as well as video street views for the more discreet to choose their departure moments wisely.

My friend Yoshi met us for dinner on our last night, and with our consent he invited his friend Aki, who had worked in South Africa and had a very good knowledge of English. They took us first to an izakaya for grilled meats, shishito peppers, dumplings, and other light food, and then to a sushi bar, where we stared open-mouthed for a minute at the foot-long pieces of conger eel before digging into them. Aki walked home at that point -- counting every step on his pedometer so as to meet his exercise quota -- and Yoshi took us up to the top of the Shinagawa Prince Hotel for a terrific view that didn't require us to don special clothing. Neither he nor Aki let us pay for anything all night. Omotenashi, indeed.

Try as we might, we can't quite find anything that reminds us enough of Japan back in New York City. There are a few places with the space-age toilets. There's a row of varied restaurants and one small takeout place for octopus balls on Ninth Street. We love our local izakaya, Hagi, though the okonomiyaki aren't as light as in Osaka. The closest thing is probably in Edgewater, New Jersey, where the giant Mitsuwa Marketplace supermarket and surrounding houseware and toy stores have people happily shouting "Irasshaimase!" to welcome you inside. Mitsuwa had a food fair a week after Charlie and got home. We took the shuttle over for okonomiyaki-flavored fish-ball skewers, crab over rice wrapped in sweet tofu, marinated scallops and conch, beef-tongue ramen, black-sesame and green-tea soft-serve ice cream. I brought home a prepackaged foot-long strip of conger eel.

It was a good fix, but we know we'll soon be yearning for the real atmosphere in the narrow alleys of Osaka and the lively streets of Tokyo. We'll be saving our miles.