Despite having had well overly 6 months to reflect back on my trip to Japan, it’s still difficult to really get my ahead around its weird and wonderful charms, and even hard to put it into words – but here goes anyway.
The longest travel journey of my life is well underway; having not slept since new years eve, I had given up trying to work out how long I had been awake as I touched down in Tokyo, Japan. Luckily for me I was meeting the guys at the airport, and it was a nice relief to see them there, smirking away at what was a particularly messy looking self.
The friendliness of the Japanese struck me immediately, as I set about converting my Japan Rail pass ticket to an actual ticket. ‘Are they always this friendly??’ I ask the guys, a bit confused. They nod and smile as if to say ‘you have no idea…’ and I can tell I’m going to like it here. We jumped on to the bullet train and sped from Tokyo to Kyoto, passing a snow covered Mt Fuji on the way, as I fought to keep my eyes open and catch up with the boys.
After walking across an ice-covered Kyoto to get to our rooms, it soon became clear that the guys had nailed it with the first accommodation booking. We were staying in a ‘capsule’ hotel, which are basically very small self-contained rooms, which in this case were just separated by curtains. There are some extreme ones that are only big enough to lie down in, but ours were a decent size and just pretty fucking awesome (pic included). I was ready to sleep for a week, but there wasn’t much chance of them letting me do that, so off we went on the hunt for a bar that had been recommended for cheap food and drink.
As we searched around, for which would become a common occurrence when looking for a place in Japan’s cities, we eventually stumbled through some innocuous looking stairs and backdoors, managing to find it hidden among a maze of corridors.
We were rewarded by some huge bowls of food, and a vibrant Japanese student vibe. At some point during the meal (which consisted of the biggest bowl of soup I’ve ever seen) a group of locals came in, and one seemed to wave in my direction. I waved back, and the next thing we know we are sharing our table with the 5 of them, and their very limited English.
Conversation was tricky, and with their restricted English ability and Jason’s beginner level of Japanese it involved a lot of Google translate, arm movements and in one of the Japanese guy’s case, exploding and shouting out ‘GOLD FINGER!’ while showing two of his fingers in the air.
The beers kept flowing and each time we were low on drinks, they would either order more or top our glasses up. We only found out later this is a Japanese custom, and that to fill your own glass up is considered rude. I wondered at the time why they didn’t pour themselves any after they did us, now I know they were probably waiting for us to return the favour, whoops…
The bill came to what was a very reasonable amount, and we attempted to pay it all (as the Japanese group had only drank a little and not eaten anything), but they absolutely insisted on paying way more than their fair share. Jason didn’t get away quite so lightly though, and as it came out and was translated that he was getting married, one of the girls insisted on punching him repeatedly while screaming ‘you married!! You married!!’. It was all pretty jovial, but I’m sure he had some bruises the next day.
As we all left the bar and wandered out on the street there was thick snow on the floor, with huge snowflakes still falling all around. It was around 4 or 5 centimetres thick, and combined with the magical view of Kyoto and what was likely severe sleep deprivation, it had an almost ethereal feel to it, as we started a mini snowball fight before sadly saying our goodbyes. I gifted one of them my scarf as we departed, which she accepted with such thankfulness she might have actually liked it. At this point I won’t mention Blake falling in lovewith one of them, and trying to run after them only to leave it too late and they had walked off, but it was an amazing first introduction to the friendliness, humility and kindness that the Japanese would show us on the trip
Kyoto was a very pleasant and surprisingly relaxing place, though not exactly how I had imagined Japan. It was far more laid back then the brief glimpse of Tokyo I had after landing, but it didn’t take long to start enjoying the food. Just shopping in a 7/11 provided some delicious (and cheap) sushi treats, and it soon became apparent that Japan didn’t actually need to be expensive.
We sound found out that the Izukaya’s were the place to be, which are the Japanese version of your local pub. Serving a mixture of food and drink in a cosy environment, albeit more relaxed and tranquil then your local boozer, they often worked out a bargain. Traversing the often Japanese-only menus made it even more interesting, and then stumbling on a deal that was often given, in that you pay a fairly small amount, the equivalent of 2 or 3 beers, and you can drink anything for an hour or two. Barely believing the all you can drink deal, the looks on the faces of the staff grew increasingly alarmed as we tucked in to numerous beers, whiskeys and sake’s that were on the menu; they were clearly not used to the western tolerance and we couldn’t help feel a little guilty.
The Izukayas were a great way to meet some of the locals, and one time that I asked a couple of girls if they were able to recommend us one nearby they dropped whatever it was they were doing and walked us all the way over to their favourite spot. As they went in to the bar, they too took a seat and had some drinks as we were shown to a table. Later on I attempted to repay their friendliness by asking if they’d like to join us, only for them to misunderstand and think I was asking them to bring our drinks over when they were ready, pointing at our table and nodding their heads.
I felt terrible that they thought I had asked them this, and after lots of hand movements they sadly still didn’t understand I was asking them to join us, so I retreated defeated and after a few minutes later they cheerfully walked our drinks from the bar right over to the table, smiling and bowing as I sat quite embarrassed.
After suffering from what we termed ‘deepthroat’, we readily tucked in to the huge selection of hot drinks from the ridiculous amount of vending machines scattered literally everywhere. One drink was aptly named 1000 lemons, which was drunk with in the vain hope of ridding my sore throat but after thousands of lemons, hot coffees and a strange sweetcorn soup, deepthroat sadly remained.
We checked out some cool sights in Kyoto, such as the bamboo forest and some temples which were dotted around, the snow making it a really quite dreamlike adventure. As we set next to the peaceful bamboo forest, somehow a snowball throwing competition started up among ourselves, with the locals looking on confused. Jas, as ‘fucking modest’ as ever likes to think he won, or as he so humbly put explains ‘it’s actually very difficult to lose at things’. Then there were some less impressive excursions, one of which took us to a karaoke bar hidden away down a back alley somewhere. I couldn’t recall how we found it, but it was the start of one of the stranger nights of my life.
We got talking to a guy who just coincidentally spent some time at the same high school as Blake, and the next few hours are a little hazy, as they discussed people that they knew and terrible renditions of even more-terrible songs scattered the karaoke bar ‘those lips, those eyes….’. There are also videos of an impromptu ‘get on the train’ (a Kyoto-inspired song) that will hopefully never see the light of day, but the less said about that the better.
I fell asleep on a bench in the Karaoke bar at some stage of the night, mainly out of exhaustion while I waited for the others to be ready. A few hours later they jostled me awake as they were ready to leave, and after what seemed like an eternity of walking in the wrong direction and a fruitless taxi journey we made it back to the accommodation, with only a handful of hours before we needed to be awake.
The next morning we were heading over to Kinosaki Onsen and need to take a particular train. I was committed to this train, but less so then the others it seemed, as I marshalled the troops in the morning. Jas was dead to the world and taking the morning particularly badly, barely moving as I try to cajole some life in to him. Following a brief slippery seal the only thing for it was to rip off his duvet and throwing it outside, leading him to roll around in a ball on his bed, flapping at the air as if he was drowning. It was like watching a fish rolling around in its final moments, confused and in pain after being hooked out of the sea. The trick must have worked at least, as after a mad dash across Kyoto we caught the train.
I even had time to take a quick dump at the train station, and while that may sound like a horrific experience in most countries, it is an absolute luxury in Japan. Sitting on the comfortable and warm seat, I must have been feeling particularly brave, as this time I decided to try and activate the water-up-your-bum spraying feature after I finished going about my business. The spray sent a quick, watery jolt of surprise in to my system, as it worked away on my behind.
Well that was an interesting experience I thought, as I now attempted to turn it off. With more controls then a small airplane, I tried a number of buttons but still the stream was spraying in to my ass at a relentless speed. I couldn’t just get up and leave, as the water would go everywhere and after a few minutes and practically every button or combination of buttons I pressed, it managed to stop and I ran gingerly back to the guys, albeit with a much cleaner crack. I didn’t use that water feature again, and we were still in time for the train – so no harm done as we hopped on and galloped towards the mountains.
I had left it up to the guys again for the accommodation, and they had found an old school spa inn type place for us to stay in. We were waited on hand and foot by our good friend ‘Wishywashy’, which was a phrase he seemed to say before walking in each day and laying the table. Dinner was one of the most extravagant food related things I’ve ever witnessed (which isn’t saying much), with numerous courses and a plethora of strange seafood-looking items. The first meal was a real struggle for me, having not a huge interest in seafood. I couldn’t name a lot of any of what I consumed, eating everything I could that didn’t make me gag, and even some of what did. It didn’t help that Jas was seemingly having an orgasm at every small creature he put in this mouth, ‘ooooh my god… so good’.
If there was a time that has been closest to turning me vegetarian, then it was having to place something called an Abalone (looked like a fanny) while it was alive, on to a sizzling hot dish to kill/cook it. As I meekly placed it on, it hissed and screeched for a few moments, making a horrifying sound, made worse still knowing that I probably wasn’t going to enjoy it. A few very small and apprehensive bites later and that was all I could manage. Rubbery and tasteless, one of the worst things I have put in my mouth… but apparently a local treat (aren’t they all).
Kinosaki Onsen provided some much needed relaxing time, and with our accommodation we had a pass to each of the large mineral baths and spa pools spread out over the small mountain village. In a strange custom, we had to dress in the ancient Japanese garments, which also included large wooden clogs that made walking in the snow and ice covered streets even more of a challenge.
There were few other western tourists and we were certainly greeted by some intriguing stairs as we slowly bumbled our way down the streets, jumping from spa to spa as we clogged gracelessly along. The natural minerals must really have been doing something, as we all noticed outrageously smooth skin, that kept having me stroke myself in strange ways. We termed it the ‘kyoto glow’ and it had us all feeling the upper echelons of our noses for an unparalleled smoothness.
With the spa’s being a naked affair, barring a small flannel you can use to exercise safety while walking around, it was somewhat surprising just how quickly you became accustomed to seeing naked men everywhere. What started as the 4 of us using the small towel to cup our private parts at all times soon become an allout cock-and-balls on show, as we joined the locals in letting it all hang out with pride.
Kinosen definitely sorted us out after a hectic few days in Kyoto, and put us in great shape as we made our way back to Tokyo for what would be an ever-so-slightly change of pace…