// Late night, multiple trains from Narita to Tokyo Proper. つかれった
Getting lost in a foreign country’s subway system is far from romantic. Absent are your fellow backpackers whom you companionably nod to from across the car, the starry-eyed lovers cuddling in the corner, the gentlemen who offer seats to old ladies with knitting projects or pastries in hand. There is no rumbling excitement of a population marching towards the future but a subdued desperation that usually fills public transportation at the end of the working day, cog gears hurtling back to worn beds to grab any sleep they can before the next gray day.
The train(s) from Narita to Chuo at 11 PM on a Thursday night were far from romantic. Take away any public Wi-Fi, hearing your own language, any printed map or written directions and it becomes downright nerve-wracking. To the left were monochrome suits and red faces, the smell of beer and smoke wafting through face masks, to the right, other nine-to-niners contorted in sleep. In between were blurs of beige and grey with the occasional neon scurrying between platforms, mouths hidden behind more face masks behind which sorely needed directions lay. Yup…I was lost. The directions I looked up while still in New York looked simple enough: take the Skyliner to Nippori, switch to the JR line to Uguisudani, walk a few kilometers. Boom. Staring at a Japanese subway table that looked more like the Diamond Sutra and less like a map though is an entirely different practice. Couple that with multiple exits per subway, multiple companies running them, trains that actually run on time without waiting, and the fact that I misread my hostel’s address, and a leisurely one hour trip turned into nearly three with a mile hike to cap it all off. Muzukashii desu.
// Past midnight, a 24-hour Sukiya diner across from the hostel. お腹すいた
Exhausted and finally checked-in, I ventured out at past midnight to the only place open around: Sukiya, a 24 hour joint frequented by late night salarymen and other God-knows-why-you’re-still-up folks. Elsewhere, you’d usually just order the greasiest thing without opening the menu and be done with it all. But like everything else, chotto muzukashii desu given that all orders are first entered into a RedBox-like kiosk whose choices rivaled my Netflix account’s. 4 different meal types (gyudons, curries, sashimi, or sets), 4-6 sizes each, 4-8 different sides to add on, not to mention any options for adding pork to soups, additional drinks, etc. All while a female voice cheerily – but obviously judging my newbie self – reminds me every few seconds in Japanese to please make a selection. The paradox of choice meets the nagging mother and after a what felt like five straight minutes of “food order panic”, I settled on a plate of Japanese-style curry to soothe my tired (and frayed) soul. Muzukashii desu.
// 8:30 PM, the mile walk from a Kushiage joint to the Jingsta Dance Studio, Shibuya. お腹いっぱい
It’s never a good idea to eat too heavily prior to vigorous activity. The offensive food in this case: multiple sticks of kushiage, battered and fried meats and vegetables from artery-clogging chorizo, bougie bacon-wrapped camembert, strangely textured kombu with herring eggs, slimy okra, and every possible chicken and sauce variation from yuzu kosho to umeboshi. Even worse? Quaffing it all down with multiple high balls that would no doubt cause havoc at a dance workshop scheduled a mere hour away. Can you really blame me though? Each stick looked exactly the same: crispy, golden brown crust hiding delicious surprises; “What’s inside stick #1?!”. And with that much grease and carbs available in quickly swallowed portions, a fizzy mix of whiskey and soda as well as a small side of lip-puckering Ume Suisyo (shark cartilage in sour plum sauce) was required to wash it all down.
Slightly tipsy and definitely stuffed, the mile hike was pleasant enough and had I been walking to bed or a nightcap, we could end this story right here. But being the last to enter the brightly lit studio with House music blaring and Japanese dancers of all ages busy stretching, I knew this wasn’t going to end well. The workshop was run by not one but four French members of the House dance crew Serial Stepperz who scaled the formidable language barrier between them and the dancers by tossing in multiple floor moves, non-stop drills, and a frenetic pace to that night’s choreo. Of course this could just be the chorizo fat in me talking. The kushiage swallowed in delight not two hours ago made a comeback as each pas de bourree brought a loud protest from the chicken skewer with yuzu kosho, each spin producing a tidal wave of whiskey-coated fishballs slamming against my stomach walls. Needless to say I couldn’t keep up and several times I was that one gaijin who was bent over clutching his knees while everyone executed move after flawless move. Hazukashii desu.
//6 AM, a deserted rotenburo in a historic ryokan, Hakone, お水わ暑いでした
Your first dip in an onsen, outdoor or otherwise in broad daylight, no matter how excited you are, always presents a sliver of doubt: “do I really want to strip butt-naked and submerge myself amongst complete strangers?” Images of tatto-ed yakuzas from old Japanese flicks and shriveled penises flashed across my mind if not for a moment. Thankfully the rotenburo – outdoor bath – was deserted and only the centuries-old sound of softly gurgling spring water permeated the equally soft glow of dawn sunlight. The rotenburo was a short walk from the room and consisted of a winding stone path between old wooden structures and quietly shuffling chambermaids. My yukata flapped against the breeze as I tried not to stop and stare at my surroundings.
Entering and preparing for my bath almost felt solemn, a far cry from my hurried stumblings into my New York tub. First, undo the outer jacket, the obi, and the yukata itself. Slip those along with the tabi socks into the wicker baskets. Step over the threshold and wince against the cold. Take a wooden pail and attempt to fill it with lukewarm water, fiddling with the foreign controls while continuing to shiver in the mid-morning chill. Douse yourself while crouching, fully aware that your naked self would look completely ridiculous had the bamboo fence not been surrounding the bath. Finally, step gingerly into the hot bath, feeling the silky water and smooth stone as you lower yourself with a long sigh. Proceed to sit for as long as you want, soaked towel on your head, in a bath that royal asses have graced decades ago (this particular one was visited by the Showa Emperor and Empress in 1955). A Filipino friend once wondered why onsens didn’t take hold in the Philippines given our terrain. Catholic modesty? Oppressive humidity? Said friend described his experience with onsens in Tagalog as “Masarap”. Kimochii desu.
//7 AM, private room in a historic ryokan, Hakone, くつろいだた
I can’t eat a meal like breakfast or dinner, especially if at home, if I haven’t showered. “Stuffy” is what I’d call such an experience. It’s hard to describe but dining without bathing makes the food rough, as if the various smells and dirt you’ve gathered from your travels outside shake off and sprinkle onto your food with each bite; dog hairs and smog coating the food in a grimy paste. Yes…it’s weird and I risk sounding like a complete germaphobe.
The opposite however, produces flavors so crisp and clean and is probably one of the easiest pleasures in life to enjoy. Fresh clothes, the light breeze one feels upon exiting a hot shower, and the distinct feel of the steam rising from your food. I sat down, sunlight filtering in through the newly opened bamboo windows, to a feast laid out across a formidable amount of dishware.
Cucumber and tomato salad with pine nuts, creamy and savory tamago with grated radish, various pickles from shibazuke to nasu, shirataki, kamaboko, saba shioyaki, tofu slowly cooking over a small flame, aka miso with crab, matcha with a bracingly sour umeboshi, a heaping of airy white rice, and seasonal fruits in cream. Such was the spread of food that I would have had to take several paces back just to fit everything into my camera frame and what the meal lacked in American portion sizing, it made up for in Japanese variety.
There’s something to be said about cleaning oneself before eating; ablutions before worshipping at the altar of food. With nothing but the sound of birds and the heat of the onsen still lingering on my skin, each pickle seared across my tongue and up my ears, each platter more vibrant to the eyes, each bite of firm mackerel producing tingles down my back, and there was nothing (and everything) to experience but the food devoid of the troubles of the outside world. If this all sounds weirdly erotic, the production of an overactive mind, try taking a bath right before you sit down to dine, preferably in a quiet setting with freshly prepared food. Then dine. Really dine. Kimochii desu.
[to be continued…]