Japan — the country that many Westerners have likened to Lewis Carroll’s “wonderland” for its quality of wacky unpredictability. But what about for other Asians — do they feel as displaced and disoriented there as Westerners do?
The message exchange between my travel buddy, P, and me, in May, went like this:
Me: “So have we decided where we want to go this July?”
P: “How about Japan?
P had lived in Japan decades ago for a student exchange program. She hadn’t been back since, and thought this year would be a good time.
I, on the other hand, didn’t really have any specific destination in mind — just so long as I could go somewhere I hadn’t been to. As I explained in my interview with the Displaced Nation, although I am from Indonesia originally, I have lived for extended periods in Aberdeen, Scotland, and in Australia. But I still hadn’t made it to Japan.
P suggested Tokyo, Kyoto, and Kobe. I added Yokohama to the list because there’s a blog buddy I wanted to meet up with. She and I had been trying to catch up forever and everywhere — UK, Singapore, and Indonesia — but kept missing each other. If I went to Yokohoma, where she is now based, surely we would finally get together?
I prepared myself for the trip by scanning some pages in Trip Advisor and the Lonely Planet guidebook. At least I would have an idea of what to do and where to go — and wouldn’t be entirely dependent on P, who speaks and reads Japanese and has lived there before so presumably knew how to get around.
Madcap traveler’s motto: Be unprepared!
When we landed at Narita Airport, I suggested that we take a taxi because it was 9:00 a.m., and I had taken the notion of a red-eye quite literally — my eyes looked red as I was still recovering from flu. I desperately wanted to have a quick nap before exploring the city.
We crossed the road, dragging our gigantic suitcases with us, and I let P speak with the men at the taxi rank. When she showed them the address of the hotel, one guy frowned and looked at us. “Tokyo?” he asked in disbelief.
We nodded eagerly. The drivers exchanged glances and apparently decided we weren’t crazy. One of them spoke in Japanese to P, who translated: “It’s 23,000 yen.”
I did a quick calculation, and almost fainted when I found out it will cost us almost 300 AUD [around the same in US$] for a taxi to our hotel.
“300 bucks??” I asked P. She nodded calmly, but her eyes couldn’t lie. She was just as shocked as I was.
“No! Cancel!” I shook my head furiously, while P apologized to the drivers. The men just laughed and pointed us back to the airport. “Take the train instead,” I think they said. “Like normal people.” Maybe they said that, too!!
Now we know why there was no one queuing for a taxi, whereas there was a long queue at the train ticket window. And we thought we were being smart!
Everyone had warned us that Japan — Tokyo in particular — is “very expensive!” The city ranks number 1 in the list of the most expensive cities in the world, while Perth, where I now live, is number 19. But really, if the taxi would cost us almost 300 bucks, what kinds of prices could we expect to find in Tokyo?
P had no memory of taxis from the airport. Years ago when she landed in Tokyo, she was picked up by a shuttle bus.
She’d also paid no attention to the length of the journey — she’d been too busy meeting and getting to know the other students. Both of us were surprised when it took almost an hour for the Narita Express to reach Tokyo Station. P had assumed it would be like Jakarta airport to the city centre (just because), and I must have skipped that page in the guidebook…
Well, at least we now knew why it was so expensive to take a taxi: the distance is more like Heathrow to London.
We just kept laughing at our silliness.
By the time we’d reached our hotel in Chiyoda, a quiet area near the Imperial Palace, we were both rather hungry and decided food would come first on the agenda, before tackling the first sight on our list: Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, in Asakusa.
“Let’s try this!” I excitedly pointed at one restaurant name in the guidebook. “It’s in Asakusa and it looks…exotic enough.”
P agreed, and under the glare of the July sun we made our way to a restaurant called Komagata Dojo, only to be greeted by the sight of a rather long queue. If there is a queue, then the food must be good, we assured each other. Plus it seems as though most of the people in the queue are locals, so the taste must be authentic.
As it turned out, the restaurant is in its sixth generation of owners, and is famous for its dojo: a tiny freshwater fish like an eel or sardine, cooked in a cast iron pot.
We ordered what seemed to be everyone’s favorite, dojo nabe (hot pot), and also asked for two bowls of rice.
The waitress lit the charcoal burner in front of us, set the pot down on top of it, and told us to sprinkle the spring onions, or negi, on top of the fish.
We looked at each other after the first gulp.
“What do you think?” I asked P.
“What do you think?” she replied back.
“Well…it’s…all right. Weird.”
She nodded. “The rice is very good though.”
I can’t describe the taste. It’s rather bland for my liking, as I grew up in Indonesia, which is famous for its spicy dishes. Not just hot spicy, but lots of flavors in every dish. But dojo nabe isn’t tasteless either. Lots of soft flavors, like soy and spring onions.
When we were about to finish our lunch, I asked P how come Japanese people look so slim if, like the rest of us Asians, they enjoy eating all the time. We were thinking that their diet of raw seafood might be the answer.
“But this isn’t raw,” I pointed at the dojo. “It’s cooked. Plus the size of the rice is rather big.”
We looked around at the other patrons — and, to our horror, we were the only ones who’d seemed to have ordered a bowl of rice each! The rest of the customers were adding the spring onions to their fish but had no rice bowls.
“That’s the only thing they eat for lunch!” I hissed to P. “Spring onions and tiny fish! No wonder they’re slim!”
“No wonder the waiter asked if we wanted one or two bowls of rice,” P admitted when we were at the cashier. “I thought it was because of my rusty Japanese, but now I know because she didn’t believe two small girls can eat that much!”
Hanging our heads in shame, we slipped out of the restaurant and determined we would burn away the calories by walking to Sensō-ji temple. The temple, however, was only a few minutes’ walk away. Still, we had fun taking photos of ourselves under the gigantic red lantern at the temple gate, and looking at the stalls lining the 200-metre-long Nakamise-dōri, the street approaching the temple — selling every manner of Japanese trinket and souvenir, including yukata robes (cotton kimono), tenugui (hand towel, often used as a headband), furoshiki (rectangular cloth for gift wrapping) and folding fans. There were also local snacks for sale, of a kind I’d never seen before in my life, in every shape and color possible, in beautiful packaging.
Kyoto and the Indonesian connection
After two days in Tokyo, we took the shinkansen to Kyoto and stayed in a ryokan — a traditional Japanese guesthouse where you sleep on tatami mats. Being shoppers at heart (another trait of Indonesian tourists!), we were pleased to see that the ryokan was just two minutes away from Nishiki Market, which we saved for our last day.
At first I was skeptical. How “weird and wonderful” can the Nishiki market wares be? I’m an Asian, I’ve seen lots of weird and wonderful things, I don’t think that the Japanese can produce anything that would shock me. Well, I was wrong. From pickled eggplants to live turtles, from grilled sea-eels to rakugan (tea-ceremony sweets) shaped as sushi — every single stall was full of wonders that had me alternatively oohing and ahing, or eek-ing and yuck-ing (along with a few WOWs and OMGs).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We ended up having a better experience in Kyoto because of making an Indonesian connection on our very first day. After encountering the tail end of the Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals, named for Kyoto’s Gion district, we stopped in one of the shops in Gion, where the owner happily chatted with us in English. He knew about Indonesia’s first president (I guess because the third of Soekarno’s nine wives was a Japanese woman), and explained to me that the stuff I was buying wasn’t candy but rakugan, made of sugar and starchy powder and often served in Japanese tea ceremony to offset the bitterness of the green tea.
Arranged in a pretty box, the rakugan have the most beautiful soft colors, from baby pink to green. Each was in a floral shape, with delicate carvings on the surface — yet each was only as big as my smallest fingernail. How they could make such detailed coverings in such a small space, I had no idea.
We told the shop owner we were hoping to eat a good soba for dinner. He said to go straight ahead until we reached the kabuki theatre. Next door to that theatre is a famous soba place called Matsuba, he said.
We found the place easily (thanks to P’s ability to read the restaurant sign!), and had fantastic soba with smoked herring.
Our luck didn’t stop there. The next day, after wandering around Kiyomizu-dera, a famously beautiful temple in Eastern Kyoto, and spending a fortune buying souvenirs, cookies and ice cream from virtually every shop along the temple street, we made a quick stop at a proper store to buy sunglasses for P. One of the staff turned out to be an Indonesian. He recommended a bar not far from our hotel for a drink, where the owners are Japanese sisters but can speak Indonesian. Thanks to this advice, we ended up spending our last night in Kyoto befriending a set of Indonesian-speaking Japanese twins.
I queried the twins about where to have lunch on our last morning. They booked us into Gion Nishikawa — 2 stars in the Japanese Michelin Guide and the first restaurant in Japan that made me appreciate how wonderful Japanese food can be. The eight-course, kaiseki-style lunch cost only around 70 AUD and was served directly by the cute chef (whom P rather fancied!) from across the counter. No other Japanese food I’d had before in my life could compare to this.
The chef would tell us (in Japanese, of course) what type of dish he was putting on our plates, and which food goes with which sauce. By the fourth course, which featured three types of fish, even we were starting to feel rather full, and P decided not to finish it — she wanted to save some space for course No. 8. When the chef cleared her dish, he saw that there was still some fish left, put it back in front of her and told her to finish it! I assumed he did that because it was such a costly delicacy.
Meanwhile, I was amazed that one of the fish in the bowl was koi (carp or goldfish) — yes, koi, what people normally keep as a pet! I looked at the chef in disbelief and he only laughed at me and said (as translated by P) that of course they eat koi.
Hahaha — I still felt as though I was eating my own cat…