A thrilling travel and food mini-series! Not a break-up story.
By Leo K. Moncel
Japan is crazy, right? Is there any other country that looms so large in the international imagination as a haven for the bizarre? Over the years, I became so used to hearing urban legends and ridiculous-sounding cultural generalizations about Japan that I started to disbelieve by default whatever I was told about it. I became certain that people were exaggerating the national character of Japan with each new conversation about it, like a fishing story. It seemed to have become a place known for extremes, used by people as a canvas on which to project their own outlandish visions. The truth about Japan, I assumed, was probably like most things in life: far more mundane than the fantasy.
I spent three weeks in Japan at the end of August. Upon my return, the first thing I was asked by a lot of people was, “What was the most surprising thing about Japan?” My response: surprise that it did actually conform to almost every outlandish-sounding generalization I’d rejected. It’s all there in smashing contradiction: neon lights, ancient temples, traditionalism, futurism, monoculturalism, fascination with the rest of the world, and crowds upon crowds. The surprise of Japan was that it was every bit as extreme as everyone had said it was.
If you think of tourism as a feast for the senses (and I have no problem with the undignified term “tourism” in my own context), then it was apparent from early on that Japan was going to be an incredibly varied banquet. Seen from my descending flight, the countryside abounded with bundles of bulbous forest that looked ripe enough to pluck. My Then Girlfriend (MTG from now on) helped me navigate the futuristic Narita Airport as we zipped by Leo Café and posed in front of the Leo Shop before renting a mobile phone at Leo Phone. I kicked myself for it, but I couldn’t help but think, “I’m big in Japan.”
Then we were outdoors — 32˚ in the mellow, late afternoon sun, and humid enough to swim. She drove me through the semi-rural Narita area, down empty single-lane roads; a huge orange sun was melting down into the deep green fields. “What are they growing?” I asked her. “Rice.” Of course. Thanks to National Geographic, my only mental image of rice paddies was that of tiered mountain plateaus. It hadn’t occurred to me rice that could be grown in flat fields. We took a shortcut to get back to MTG’s family home, a strikingly narrow little road that twisted insanely up a steep incline. Looming on either side were imposing Japanese houses, white with dark beams and iconic slanted roofs. More “Japanese” than I’d expected.
MTG’s house was an honest, suburban place. Still, a suburb of Tokyo is vastly different from a suburb of Toronto. There, even at the outermost reaches of suburbia, the planning is restrained and sensible, based on a grid. The burbs back out onto rice paddies, not North York-like stretches of showerhead emporium superstores. This is not a dig at Toronto, but a comment on our whole continent. The more of a thing possessed by humans, the more that thing is squandered, and North America is cursed with an abundance of space.
After a nap, MTG and I headed out for the subway system. Outside of the city, street lighting is little more than occasional, and patches of road and sidewalk can vanish right into blackness. Although it wasn’t yet 10:00 p.m., my discombobulated brain was certain it was 3:00 a.m. Our mission was to get to downtown Tokyo so we could board an overnight bus to Kyoto. On the train, I fought tooth and nail to stay awake and take in the bright, neon cityscape, but it was impossible. As I listed away into slumberland, the incomprehensible Japanese conversations around me slowed and slurred until the words recombined into English. My exhausted mind created something it could digest.
Taking the overnight bus to Kyoto, we arrived at daybreak. As the bus slowed and the other passengers were roused, I pulled the bus’ curtains back and peered single-eyed out at bright Kyoto. Somehow, in this half-dream time-flux, I’d been sent back to the 1970s. Beige buildings with round corners and square tiles — here it was, exactly like in my mother’s faded photographs.
Kyoto — a former capital of Japan — is deservedly famous for the history preserved in its monuments, but a more ordinary sense of history also lingers throughout its streets. The city bus carried us gently uphill towards the northwest edge of town where the city gradually receded to mountains. The city got older as we moved away from its centre, and I was delighted to see a little rust creep in, lending character to surgically clean Japan.
A roadway with a distinct sidewalk is something we take for granted in Canada. But even in orderly, prosperous Japan, a little bit of Asian street chaos bustles its way in. Many sidestreets, particularly in Kyoto, are like a hybrid street/alley, lined with little mom and pop shops, barbers and butchers; there’s a painted line where the cars aren’t recommended to drive, but they will if they decide to. It’s not unusual to be in a wide pedestrian plaza that’s crowded with people who suddenly start cramming to one side as a cab bullies its way through the herd. The uniquely Japanese part of the arrangement is that the cab doesn’t honk and the people don’t shout.
I could have walked those sidestreets all day, but MTG had grander plans and soon we were floating downriver on a boat tour, flanked on either side by mountains. Each tour boat had a crew of only three who rotated tasks, the hardest task by far being the actual rowing and banter. Our head rower was a bit of a show-off and virtually tailgated the boat ahead. I didn’t understand the Japanese tour but laughed anyways. I was just mesmerized to be so close to the mountains.
By the evening, things were already beginning to unravel between MTG and I, but after a civilized levelling of accusations, there was nothing to do but go out and eat. By nightfall, Kyoto’s northern downtown is virtually enchanted. Every little building glows, streets branch into sidestreets and down to tiny alleyways just wide enough for two to walk abreast. Following my guidebook, we found Musashi, a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant that Frommer’s assured me was cheap. I was skeptical — it was late and the crowd was young.
When it comes to restaurants, I naturally try to find places that draw regulars. My trepidations were alleviated when a sour-faced old-timer arrived alone and hunched down on a corner seat with a mug of beer. This man didn’t give a shit if it was trendy. Every other concern I had was pushed away as we filled our mouths with some very exquisite sushi. One plate came by that was decidedly of flesh, not fish. I asked MTG if it was pork. “No,” she told me, “It’s horse.” Long-time readers can guess what happened next. Longish strips of streaky horsemeat were laid-out, sushi-style over a “thumb” of tightly packed sushi rice. I didn’t have to think twice before popping it in my mouth. It was, as I’d read about, somewhat tough. A bit of a let down. Japan, conversely, was shaping up to be every bit as intense as I’d heard it was, and I couldn’t have been more excited.