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
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
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.