Mildly Lost in Translation in Japan.


Japan has always been a very peripheral interest of mine. I don’t know why, my best friend in high school was Japanese, (well, half, but definitely the dominant half) and I like sushi and I love stationary… it should have been a match made in travel heaven.  But the country never really had an effect on me like Italy or Bali or Egypt or Latin America: A need to go.

People in Hong Kong love Japan. They are always talking about the food and the shopping. That did not seem like a good enough reason to go; we’ve got a lot of that right here. Cheaper. Then people said, “Go to Hokkaido, it is like, an amazing little fishing island.” Umm, I live on a little fishing island. So, again… not so totally motivated. Then Japan became, like THE hipster destination. Hmmm. Even less enticing.  But two very dear students of mine here are Japanese (Hello Romi and Yu!) and talked to me a lot about Japan, and I have to admit I was very curious to see what it felt like to be in a country that in spite of its size (because of its size?) has had, historically, some of the biggest geopolitical cojones I can think of. Russia? China? America? Psshhhht. They took ’em all on. Regardless of the outcome, they were there, and frankly, a bit in the vein of Captain Insano. I think they call it “kamikaze…” Hehehh. [For the record, kamikaze actually means “divine wind” so you get an idea of where they are coming from anyhow.] I guess eventually my interest was piqued, in large part, by the apparently incongruous characteristics displayed by my Japanese students and the country’s history.

Plus, as has been pretty evident, I am just so totally down with vacations right now, when Frenchie suggested going to Kyoto to see the fall colors, I was like… Right, let’s do it. Then I mentioned Japan to my friend Jill who meant to fly over from Delhi come visit me in Hong Kong in July but found herself hospitalized with dehydration after a trip somewhere in India… and it seemed like this might be a great way to finally catch up with each other since HK was a bust and our ships passed in the night stateside. Suddenly I was heading to a country I had never really put super high on my Must-See List (yeah, yeah I know, you list haters will have words here…) AND I was traveling with people rather than my standard solo strategic strike.

Maybe the universe really is shifting.

It was a little presumptuous to take off for a week right after I returned from a five week foray in the States, but I was willing to compromise:  I would fly on Saturday rather than Thursday and be back at work on the following Wednesday. It was going to be a quick trip. Tickets were sorted and I let the rest of the details just sort of emerge from the efforts of Frenchie and J. This, by the way, is a very big step for the control freak that is me. I decided that I would just be where I said I would be and the rest would fall in to place.

And it did.

I flew on Japan Airlines, my first trip on this carrier, and it was lovely. The planes are basically decorated like a Muji store, and so that is all good; lots of soothing taupe and cream colors. I did not get the business class upgrade (this is going to become an obsession I just know it), but I am still very much enjoying the perks of full lounge access in the airports.  As we taxied out of the gate at HKIA, I looked out the window and saw the entire JAL ground crew standing in a line waving to the plane, and as we turned toward the runway they all bowed. For real. And I just saw it randomly. I always feel lucky when I see random stuff like that. And I guess I am feeling pretty lucky these days all the way around. The flight was easy, I was out of the airport and on a bus into Osaka in less than a half hour from landing. I did, however, stop in the bathroom where I had my first WTF?! moment of the weekend. Never have I been confronted with such an array of options on the toilet. Seriously.


Once I was in Osaka I had to find the hotel where I would be meeting Karine on her way in from Nara. We were at the Tokyu Inn and it seemed reasonable enough to walk. Oh, but all the maps and signs are 100% Japanese and no one speaks English. Fortunately, I have an excellent sense of direction and ran into a willing attendant at the Hankyu train station who showed me the streets on a map so I could orienteer through logic if not identify place names. I was at the hotel in less than 15 minutes. Right after I walked in I heard the familiar French and saw Karine. She had gone in circles to arrive at the same destination from the same station – it turns out Frenchie has not one single molecule of directional sense in that international head of hers. Who would have known?

The room was completely tiny, but we had our own kimonos and another magic toilet. When you sit on them water runs in the bowl – either to help with stage fright or to disguise your own bio-noise. I am not sure which. We headed out for some food and Asahi, and so I could really experience what Frenchie’s lack of directional skills was like. Fascinating. And I am not talking about the food. Though that was funny too – we picked a local, local place and had some dodgy tepanyaki and draft beer and then the guy wanted to charge us like US$35. I mean, seriously, for two pints and like five mini meat sticks. I knew Japan was going to be expensive, but seriously.  Sayonara.

Then we went to a noodle shop and I had some of the best gyoza I have ever had. Victory.

We took a little walk around the ‘hood and I found my first 7-11. Bonus victory! Actually, 7-11 turned out to be very important on this trip because they have their own bank in Japan and it was one of the only ones that would accept non-Citibank or Japanese bank cards. Like I need more reasons to bow down to the green and orange. [For those of you who are curious: The door chimes are different, definitely more chimey, and the prepared food is amazing. No real discernible smell either. Japanese 7-11 FTW.]

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Back at the hotel we got ready for an early start to head to Kyoto where we would find J, who had failed to read a small detail in our email indicating that we would be in Osaka on this night. As we tucked in, Frenchie mentioned that she was slow to wake up and I told her that was fine because I don’t talk in the mornings until I have been up for at least an hour and have had a good caffeine infusion. I think she interpreted that information the way I had taken her warning that she could walk into a shop, turn around three times, and afterward not know how she got into the shop. I simply did not believe that was possible. Well, I was wrong and so was she in assuming that I was kidding about being basically non-communicative in the mornings. Look at Amanda and Karine learn.

The train to Kyoto was wonderfully simple and brief and ended up in a coffee shop. Another victory. By this time I was a little more awake, though Frenchie’s consistent (audible) disbelief at my quiescence encouraged me to suggest she go get a donut. When she came back to the table, I asked her what kind of donut she got and she said her favorite, actually she said it was her second favorite since they did not have her true favorite. I asked what that might be. She said “Jelly-filled.” If there is a donut on the planet that I would never eat, that would be it. I had to laugh. Have I mentioned that there are about two things in the universe that Frenchie and I share sentiments about? [Those two things being each other, there is not one other matching preference. For real. It is sort of amazing.]


We took a bus into the center of town near our hotel, a ryokan near Keihan-Sanjo Station. J had already stepped out for the morning when we arrived, so we dumped our things and headed out to see the surrounding area.

And this is what Kyoto is all about.

It is beautiful.
It is clean.
It is quiet.
It has an excellent aesthetic in every way.
It is very different from any place I have ever been.

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Later we met up with J pretty much like clockwork. I was starting to realize this whole going with the flow thing? Way cool – and it works. We got our room sorted out and headed for lunch. We ended up at this kind of cafe place where you put your money in a vending machine and get a ticket and then get your food. Strange but effective system. A characteristic that I must admit fully describes my experience in Japan. After lunch we decided to take a bus to the Ginkakuji Temple because it was a place my step dad had suggested. He actually was at this exact temple the day I was born. I thought that was pretty cool. And it was lovely. From there we walked along the Philosopher’s Path and saw Honen-in temple and then went to a little cafe on the river for refreshments. Okay, yeah… beer.

Back at the ryokan we had some snacks and showers and then decided to see what was to be had for dinner. You know when there are too many options? Yeah, well that happened to us. we must have looked at ten different places before settling on one that I know we picked for two reasons: 1) Aesthetics – it was gorgeous and 2) Hypoglycemia – people were getting hungry. As is often the case, the food did not seem really “Japanese.” Like when people come to Hong Kong and want General’s Chicken and stuff. A lot of it was just sort of unfamiliar, but we went with it and the meal got progressively better. I would say it was fusion food except I hate that word, so we’ll just say it was “different.” But some stellar items, almond crusted shrimp, cabbage and pork rolls, and what was that one thing with the ginger sauce I wanted to drink? I cannot believe it escapes me now. Ah well… here’s the menu if you are curious. And you read Japanese. From Mimasuya we headed to a funny bar by the river and had a couple of drinks and called it a night. Lots of temples awaited us so we had to plan ahead.

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My big decision the next day was to bike or not to bike. I opted not to bike. I wanted the freedom to get on a bus or in a taxi if I wanted to and I also wanted my hands to be free (didn’t want another camera casualty a la Burning Man.) I also wanted to see some museums and stuff, which Frenchie is not so into but J was down. So, coffeed up and ready to roll we had a plan to walk towards the Nishiki Food Market and the split up. We would meet by the apparently very elusive Heian Shrine and the handicraft center. All systems were go. except it was Monday and all the museums are dark on Mondays. Hm.

Okay, so photo opportunities and shopping. Could be worse ways to spend a morning. J and I saw lots of interesting and unusual things [except NO robots and I was on a real robot mission] and stumbled across some cool graveyards (at the mall) and temples (mall also.)

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We ended up meeting Frenchie with perfect timing and that was pretty cool, especially because I was sure she was going to get lost, so either she did not get lost or she got lucky. Maybe some combination therein. But that was all sort of a moot point anyhow since we were going to endeavor to find the handicraft center and the Heian Shrine, which were, according to our maps, pretty much right where we were standing.

Only they weren’t.

After coffee and a bathroom break (I swear I had to pee more than a pregnant lady on this trip – perhaps it was the fact that there is a coffee shop on every corner… apparently the Japanese have a very big love for the caffeine) we headed to where we should have found the Handicraft Center. A giant 7-story building.  A very covert building. Or something. On our way we found the shrine. Took some photos and ooh’ed and ahh’ed appropriately. On leaving the “shrine” we remained confounded as to the location of said craft warehouse. And then, who should be the one to spot it? Our intrepid directionless Frenchie, who, it turns out, has a fantastic eye for buildings. after we did some shopping we decided that we would head to the other end of town to see Kiyomizu Temple, a favorite of many. It was up on a hill and Frenchie was riding her bike. J and I thought we might walk… but we all decided to check out another missing landmark on the way – the Okazaki Park. Seriously, it was like “Where’s Waldo.” We found the oldest martial arts center in Kyoto and more coffee shops. No park. No Shrine. And then – lo – We found the most ginormous shrine yet. Um, yeah, the Heian Shrine. Oh, and the park was there too. Again, gigantic. Our deductive locator devices were clearly a mess, how do you miss a building like this?


So, anyhow, market, shrine and park located (everyone can breathe easy now, they have not gone missing…) we headed to Kiyomizu. We made rendezvous plans and the lazy Americans jumped in a cab, the intrepid Frenchie pedaled off. needless to say, we never rendezvous’d. But the temple was gorgeous and J got her green tea ice cream and I got more coffee. And some Sanrio shit but still no robots. Back at the ryokan, Frenchie was still missing and so our little happy hour was minus one until – ta dah – she appeared! Late and happy… as usual. We compared notes on the day and laughed at all of our missteps and got ready to go out to eat. It was time for MEAT. Sukiyaki and shabu-shabu time! Junidanya Restaurant treated us so right. I may have eaten more at this dinner than I have in a single setting in a very long time. It was that good. I wish I had a photo of the giant glob of “fat” that was used to cook everything. Thinking about makes me a little queasy, but man it tasted good. We had a nice after dinner stroll with the intention being to do a little karaoke (not my intention whatsoever, but you know, one tries to play along.) The gods were smiling on me though as all were too full to be bothered with traipsing through the light rain to find karaoke… so we got desert and headed home to the coziness of the ryokan. Another day very well spent

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My last full day in Kyoto began under grey skies, but we were undaunted and headed, by bus, to the Ryoanji Temple with it’s very famous Zen garden and then the Kinkakuji Temple… the big gold one… to start things off. The Ryoanji Temple is a lovely wood structure. The floors were one of my favorite parts; you go barefoot and as I was not wearing socks, I had the pleasure of the amazing wooden floors. I am not sure why I liked it so much, but it definitely makes me advocate even more for the “no shoes inside” philosophy. The garden (“of worldwide fame is said to have been laidout by Soami, a painter and gardener who died in 1525” – according to the brochure) itself is 15 rocks and white sand. I have never really understood rock gardens. I mean, like I get that they are art and stuff, but I never really saw what the big deal was. But, as is often the case with stuff that has been around as long as Zen philosophy, there really is something to it. Being there you really just do feel totally… err, Zen. Plus the perfectly raked sand made my OCD-ness happy.

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Soon we were heading to the Golden Pavillion. And golden it is. One of the primary motivations for this whole trip had been Frenchie’s desire to see the fall colors in Kyoto, her last visit having been during the sakura season. {Uh-huh, that is some Japanese I just thew down there and it means cherry blossom…) Unfortunately, because it is impossible to predict the formerly typical turns of season any more (of course global warming is only a theory) we were a bit to early for the fall colors and found a very verdant Kyoto on arrival. But here, at Kinkakuji, we found a lovely tree that had turned. Yes, that is singular, but it was a magnificent specimen.


And then of course there is the pavilion itself. I will let the photos speak for it save for the one comment that both my compadres said to me separately: “Wow, look at the rooster on the top!” I wonder if a phoenix would get annoyed at being called a rooster. Better than cock, I suppose.

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I was still determined to see the museums – the Museum of Kyoto and the Kaleidoscope Museum – the former I had known about the latter was a J-mention and I was totally down for it. Frenchie was not so interested in the museums so we devised another meet-up plan. always a little risky, but hey, it seemed like a pretty user friendly place so we were down. We got off the bus and after a bit of directional confusion (not mine…) we ended up in a little coffee shop to lay out a plan. Frenchie would temple it up and shop, J and I would head to the museums. We would meet at a well known sushi spot at 3:30. Deal. Now was everyone sure that they would be able to find the restaurant? Yes, they were. Absolutely sure? Yes. Positive? Ok, yeah, can I have a map? And we were off.

The Museum of Kyoto is cool, but too much for us to have seen in such a short time. I love museum shops though and so I was thrilled to be ale to buy some way overpriced stuff there [no robot]. And when I say way, I mean, even for Japan. The funny thing about the cost of Japan, which is definitely worth mentioning, is that I was able to totally disregard it because of the exchange rate. I realize that sounds completely stupid and mathematically retarded, but it is like I have mentioned here before, somehow when you are paying 90,000 anything for a meal, it is sort of hard to really take seriously. (I have yet to look at my bank balance since returning so I may very well take it a whole lot more seriously soon.) Either way, Japan is expensive. But back to the museums… Lacking time to really check out the exhibits at the Museum of Kyoto, we headed to the Kaleidoscope Museum. Can I just say: Hell Yeah. This is a definite must see.

We made it to the sushi restaurant and did indulge. We shopped. [We found a shop full of robots and Ultraman, but they were hundreds of US dollars. For real. High quality to be sure, but still we are talking toys here. the Japanese take their robots quite seriously it turns out.] We contemplated lots of last minute arrangements. We took in a lot of Kyoto.

Japan was amazing. The place was actually simultaneously mental and serene. The people were also lovely; in aesthetics and demeanor. But there was something about Japan that I cannot totally put my finger on. It has nothing to do with the cost, as lots of people seem willing to suggest. Nor is it something insidious or weird. I have been looking for the words to articulate it all week and have come up short.

Walking through the streets of Kyoto, J said she could live there in a heart beat; though bear in mind she is currently residing in Delhi and I am of the opinion that if Delhi has a polar opposite it just may be Kyoto. Frenchie said she could totally live there because she has an ‘understanding’ with the people, which is her way of saying they get each other. Without doing what I always do and contradicting her, I have to say that I respectfully disagree (so, yeah, I am contradicting her.)

My feeling about Japan was that it was lonely. But I am not sure if that is the most precise word. in some ways it reminded me of how Ferris Bueller described Cameron’s house: “The place is like a museum. It’s very beautiful and very cold, and you’re not allowed to touch anything.” But I am kind of talking about the people not the place. Well, the place too. But then this makes it sound bad and it is far too pleasant to cast in that light, I mean I look forward to going back. I told Anna that she would love it because it is like a robot society by which I meant to indicate detachment far more than coldness or lack of passion. Japan does things all the way; they do not seem to be a “half-way” kind of place whether we are talking history, fashion, pop music, food, cartoons, partying, design… you name it. But there is a sense of detachment there that is really unique. Like a conscious and accepting recognition that there are insiders and outsiders and there is no judgement about that, it is just the way it is and how it will always be and so that is fine (the lack of English I am sure contributes to this, but that is not totally what I mean.) It strikes me as positively Vulcan. But I like Spock, so it’s cool.

Soon enough I was back at the Tokyu Inn in Osaka, wearing my house kimono, looking back on a busy four days and thinking, “A long weekend to check out Japan? Hell yeah, my life = pretty damn cool.” When I flew home the ground crew in Osaka waved and bowed at the plane as we headed out. And I had a moment to reflect and I thought: Yep, I’d do it again.

And that is always a good assessment, I think.



About Amanda

I am repatriating expatriate trying to work it all out. Well, to work some of it out anyhow. I am writing here for sanity, focus and general over-sharing.
This entry was posted in Friends, Geography, Holidays, Perception, Philosophical Underpinnings, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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