The following day I rented a bicycle and rode south along the Kamo River and then over to the Fushimi Inari Temple with its small mountain covered in forests and shrines. I’m not sure if I’ve managed to hit Kyoto during some epic, city-wide costume party but this was the second day I saw at least 100 people (especially young adults) dressed in beautiful traditional garb. Of course, each person in said outfit was contrasted nicely by a smart phone in hand. Or in the case of a young lady, her contrasting outfit combined a stunning, perfectly worn kimono with a pair of Chuck Taylors on her feet.
I then road north to the temple of Kiyomizu-dera and then, more importantly, road further north to Musashi Sushi where I encountered my first sushi train. You sit down at a counter and simply grab whatever small sushi dish looks to be a winner as it moves by on a conveyor belt. Once you’re done, a waitress counts your plates and bills you accordingly. This allows you to have a great sushi meal very quickly and cheaply.
The next day I took a 45-minute bullet train ride west to Himeji Castle. The castle dates back to the 1400’s although its current form was not achieved until the early 1600’s. While much of the area just outside the castle was devastated by bombing in World War II, the castle miraculously survived which is even more amazing when you realize it was considered a military site during the war and was actually bombed in the main tower (incredibly, the bomb did not go off).
One of the castles most important historical figures was a samurai by the name of Kuroda Kanbei. He was also a very good political strategist and Christian convert. Becoming a samurai, involving yourself in political intrigue, living in an awe-inspiring castle…if ever there was a Christian that followed the “What would Jesus do?” creed better than this, I have yet to hear about it.
Here is a good place to discuss some observations I have made of Japan:
1) Lots of Japanese have a quick, short stride that involves foot-dragging, sort of like the way a lady in slippers might run for a ringing phone. I assume shoes are not free here so this walking style must get pricey.
2) Even outside, you’re only allowed to smoke in designated areas that have the feel and often the look of a penalty box.
3) Japan often looks like an ER with so many of its citizens wearing face masks. At first, this was supposedly done to keep your illness from spreading. Now it often has more to do with people trying to prevent acquiring an illness. There’s also a fair amount of people that wear masks so no one will bother them since others see your mask and think that you’re sick, making them less likely to talk to you. Wearing these masks also makes it far more difficult for others to read your facial expressions.
4) There is a s#*t-ton of old people here. Unless each one of these older dears is a Benjamin Button, Japan may want to look into this.
5) There is a s#*t-ton of beautiful, stunning women here and the feeling I get from every single one of them is that they don’t have the slightest desire to go to the prom with me. But it’s all good; I got me a Filipina lady that not only wants to go to the prom with me but likes to wear my varsity letter jacket to sleep every night.
6) Trust seems vital to the Japanese. To demonstrate this, I took a picture of a jobsite closed down for the day on Saturday at 5:30PM. Pay close attention to the expensive power tools simply chilling in plain view. Never in a million years would an American contractor (including myself) leave his or her tools out in the open after leaving a site. I also love how clean and orderly everything is.
7) Here is the strangest, hands down, Christmas decoration I have ever seen that is hanging on the wall of my hotel.
8) You’ll be walking down a normal city street and without warning; it will turn into a mall.
Today I rode a bicycle six miles west to Togetsu-kyo Bridge. After crossing over the bridge, I went south into a park area where I stumbled upon what appeared to be a kite-flying contest. I’ve always felt that a fantastic indicator of an evolved society is its ability to conduct a successful kite-flying contest. While each contestant ran out with their kite, a guy would dramatically beat a drum. Under self-induced pressure to top this cultural gift, I decided to hike 20 minutes up a hill to the Arashiyama Monkey Park where monkeys are allowed to run free.
For dinner, things got very special. Someone had told me about an odd unique place by the name of Okariba. Walking by it, nothing would alert you to its presence. It occupies a small space on the first floor of what appears to be a boring-five story concrete apartment building. When you step inside, you feel like you’re inside a hunting lodge. Everything is wood and hanging on the walls are all sorts of hunting paraphernalia and other random things. In fact, when I took my seat in the back corner in what was the last available seat shared with restaurant supplies, I leaned back into a hanging belt of what I prayed was an inactive Remington shotgun shell belt. I looked around and saw what seemed to be mainly locals huddled into this small space. The air was being dominated by the smoke of some type of cooking meat. The owner returned and in a rough but comparatively good English, asked, “Are you hungry?”
“Sure”, I said. He nodded, walked away, never gave me a menu, and returned 15 minutes later with a heaping pile of delicious wild boar.
While I was disciplining my meal, a Japanese couple in their 60’s sat to the right of me in a space that, up until now, was occupied by one of the owner’s hunting buddies whose picture was on the wall near my head. The couple lived nearby and appeared to be good friends of the owner. The woman’s name was Shigeno and she trained people how to use kimonos and hakamas.
As the night progressed, things only got better. As the place thinned out, the owner and his employee spent more and more time with us and kept bringing out food for me to try, the most exotic including locusts and bee larvae. Soon he was pouring me sake and eventually went to the refrigerator in efforts to furnish me with some of his high-grade sake. He told me where he hunted and that all the food was captured by him. He then held up a pretend rifle and said, “All food here is organic!”
Shigeno even shared some of her food with me and was kind enough to supply me with two bookmarks made with fine Japanese cloth. She pointed at both and said, “one for your girlfriend”. So the lesson of love learned here is that if I ever find myself single, I will still tell everyone I have a girlfriend so people give me two of everything.
The next morning I took a train or two down to the nearby city of Nara to view the Todai-ji temple which is one of the largest wooden buildings in the world and houses a 50-foot bronze Buddha statue.
Don’t get me wrong, this is intense and superb but there’s a chance I was more awed by the fact that not just in the massive park grounds around the temple but even into the city are wild deer walking around! It’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. These deer chill among us like domesticated robots. My experiences with deer at home are fleeting at best; once a deer detects me, it runs away from like a vegetarian runs away from a pile of steaks. In Nara, the deer will actually approach you like a confident, weathered prostitute. You also have the option of buying some crackers for $1.50 and feeding them, thereby increasing the probability of a filthy deer advance.
But, there were signs warning people to be careful around the deer. The following sign displays the four favorite wrestling moves deer like to perform on unsuspecting tourists.
The next day I boarded the Shinkansen (bullet train) and travelled east to Odawara and then on to the resort town of Hakone, known for its many “onsen” or hot baths. When I checked in, the man at the reception desk informed me of all the splendors of the hotel and that I was expected to wear my yukata (traditional robe) to breakfast.
If I was a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine, I would be the luckiest person in the galaxy to have the room I was in. But since I am not a Petty Officer 3rd Class in a submarine and am on dry land, I am left only to define myself as a guy staying in a converted janitor’s closet. The whopping 140 square feet affair is well-equipped but suffers from the fact it’s only 140 square feet and has one window measuring one square foot in size. Ultimately, I feel like I stabbed an inmate and was put in the hole for 30 days.
After exiting my rabbit hole, I headed over to the nude-bathing onsen where I got to hang out with a lot of old Japanese junk. In line again with the Japanese obsession with cleanliness, I had to follow a strict set of rules before and during my bathing experience. One of the rules was thoroughly scrubbing yourself down at a seated shower station beforehand (and you had to remain seated). Another rule dictated I could not bring a bathing suit or towel into the onsen. And what’s more, you’re not allowed to enter the baths if you have any tattoos! This is clearly an attempt to keep American rock stars and confused college ladies out of the onsen.
When I awoke the next morning, I proudly put on my yukata with the help of an instruction sheet in my room. Due to the limited range of leg movement while wearing my robe, I shuffled my way to the restaurant wearing slippers on my feet, looking like I was trying to build up an electric shock in my body that I would childishly shock someone with. When I entered the large dining area, filled with over 100 Japanese folk, I soon realized I was perhaps one of eight people wearing a yukata to breakfast, making me look like one of those Caucasian putzs who was ineffectively trying to assimilate to Japanese culture. It got worse when I got on the elevator and two Japanese ladies looked at me with slight surprise and one said to me as if trying to be nice and supportive to a five-year old that tied his shoes for the first time in his life, “Ohhh, it looks good! Very comfortable!”
After touring around the Hakone area in a train, a funicular, a bus, a cable car, and a boat, I decided to hike over a small mountain and back down towards my hotel. I saw a wild boar at one point but he/she darted away before I got a good look. Later on in the hike, I paused for a moment, standing perfectly still in a heavily wooded valley. Soon after, a family of boar started walking above me, towards where I came from. Although they did not see me, the leader, who I believe was the mother, stopped and began to take the air in with her enormous nose in brief, powerful inhalations. The family members behind her stopped and awaited her cue. As she was close to my current position and where I had just been, I assumed she smelled my appetizing presence. She continued to analyze my aroma until finally she turned and hastily ran in the direction she came with the family following suit. I felt embarrassed and insulted. I didn’t think I smelled that bad. I guess next time I’ll wear some Drakkar Noir before initiating a hike.
After Hakone, I took a train north to Tokyo. Once there I felt like I was in the most intricate Lego set of all time. I marveled how, with even the volume of all things imaginable, Tokyo managed to remain orderly and clean for the most part. During my 48 hours, I did the following:
1) Check into my hotel next to Nippori Station, a modest hotel that probably looked great 20 years ago but now was tired and smelled like the polyester shirt of a dead chain smoker.
2) Visit the “Skytree” tower upon my hotel’s recommendation but promptly requested the structure to “eat it” when it asked me for $20 to visit the observation deck.
3) Visit the Shibamata neighborhood, known for its old preserved street that was from the Showa Era, and due to my fatigue, lounged on a park bench with the authority of a welfare legend.
4) Ate dinner at what soon became an annoyingly chipper, cheery sushi restaurant by the name of Shushizanami in the Ueno neighborhood, a neighborhood packed with little shops and restaurants, bright lights, and more importantly, offers to have filthy things done to your body.
5) Return to Ueno to visit Ueno Park and saw its beehive-like shopping district sans scandal.
6) Walk around the overly stimulating “Electric Town” in the Akihabra district where ladies dressed as provocative young maids coaxed you into their cafes and then walked through eight floors of department and electronics madness in the Yodabashi Camera store (and was gifted with Journey being played on their stereo demo station). I should also add that Japan is weirdly infatuated with massage chairs, witnessed by an amazing diverse display of them on the same floor as the stereos or what I now refer to as the “Journey Floor”.
7) Walk around half of the three-mile moat that surrounds the Imperial Palace.
8) Visit the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where I was able to visit the Observation Deck on the 45th floor for free! (Eat that and preferably develop an intestinal malady Sky Tree!)
9) Discover a great little neighborhood in Nippori on the other side of the train station that gave me a great friendly dining experience at the family-run Ariya and a very fortuitous encounter at a very underground jazz bar.
The last item was the perfect way to end the Japan leg of my trip. I walked by an open door leading upstairs and could hear only the good kind of jazz descending down to me. I ascended up to its source and was confronted with a tiny bar with stacks of vinyl records on the walls and four older gents loving life at the bar. The sound system projecting the all-vinyl sounds was old but its sound was perfect. The patrons were all Japanese and took turns talking to me. One refused to give me his real name and when I did ask, he said his name was “Mystery”. When Mystery and I completed our talk, a slightly older man by the name of Shinichiro walked over and introduced himself. Shinichiro grew up in the Nippori area but has spent the past 35 years in Okinawa doing underwater research. He was back in Tokyo on a visit and said I was very lucky to have stumbled upon this tiny little place that offered a rare jazz experience in Tokyo. This space has been opened for more than 50 years. But due to tight or nonexistent profit margins (which explains my $9 beer), was only open on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. The man behind the bar was actually a dentist and had a more charitable, hobby-like yet passionate approach to his role as bar keep. As I looked around, I laughed to myself and realized how glad my lady back home probably was that I liked jazz. Any risk of an illicit affair or casual STD-contraction was a distance away from me that could not be measured.
As I left Tokyo, I soaked in the last bits of neatness and order offered me. The air was that of a pleasant spring day. When I came out of the airport in Manila, the glorious disarray and heat hit me like an impersonal bully. When some sort of taxi dispatcher guy came up to me, I told him my hotel was less than 2 miles away. He told me the fare would be P1000, the same rate I paid to travel 30 miles to the airport, two weeks previously. I told him I would walk. Other cab drivers came over and offered lower fares but it was too late; my stubbornness had set in.
My walk led me through a museum known as “A Place That Could Not Be More Opposite of Japan”. Just outside of the airport, the sun was setting and I saw little fires, in a public or abandoned grassy area and heard the voices of families around them. Sloppy engines roared by me and I could feel the filthy air on my tongue and in my eyeballs. I took a left down Airport Road and the surroundings condensed into a throbbing neighborhood that had the personality of a 13-year old whose parents left him alone for the weekend. Out of one bar, I could hear two or three men doing a horrible rendition of Steve Perry’s Foolish Heart. Feral cats thinner than supermodels scavenged for anything they could find. More little fires glowed in alleys. A very used woman sitting in a chair on the narrow sidewalk offered me a fortune consultation. Motorized tricycles and trucks and cars beeped and aggressively gobbled up any free space they could find on the road. Outside of a small convenience store, I (and hundreds of other passerby’s) had to literally step over a shirtless man that was sleeping, unconscious or dead. The entire scene was ripe and reminiscent of one from a Mad Max movie. But oddly, not once did I fear for my safety. No one looked at me or motioned toward me in a menacing way.
I fell asleep in my hotel a couple hours later and woke up at 4AM the next morning to go back to the airport. I caught a 6AM flight on one of those Indiana Jones propeller planes to Batanes where I would be for eight days. Part of the Philippines, Batanes are a small collection of islands located about 100 miles north of the main island Luzon, Philippines and 120 miles south of Taiwan. The airport in the capital town of Basco looked like a small state highway rest stop but it’s enough to handle the one or two small passenger flights a day.
The island reminded me of a warmer Ireland. The greenness mixed with a rocky/hilly topography made one think of Western Ireland or Scotland. The weather was similar in one way: very unpredictable. When I walked the 100 meters to my guest house, it was sunny although misting. Par for the Philippines, there were various little construction projects everywhere that were being worked on so slowly or so sporadically, they looked abandoned. In fact, next to my guest house was a building that looked like it suffered the wrong end of a bomb. But at the same time, rough scaffolding constructed of random lumber and tree limbs had been assembled throughout the structure.
When I walked by the open, half-built or half-destroyed (I couldn’t tell) structure, I saw a simple table set up on the dirt floor with clothes hanging everywhere. Inside, four or five amiable and seated chaps greeted me. They were either workers living or citizens squatting in this humble living space (again, I couldn’t tell). Either way, my hopes were that these gentlemen were Basco’s version of “Mack and the boys” that live in the Palace Flophouse in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row (the friendly homeless guys that live in a semi-abandoned warehouse in Monterrey).
Speaking of characters of Cannery Row, I met another man that easily could have been in this brilliant novel. When I say “met”, I should really say “observed” since this man of an indistinguishable age was lying on his back in the middle of the street. At first I thought he was dead but then I noticed his stomach was moving. His eyes were wide open but perceived nothing. I asked a woman standing over him if we should call the nearby hospital and she said, “No. He’s just drunk.”
The day I arrived and the next two days I toured the main island and another nearby named Sabtang with BISUMI Tours. The landscape was inspiring. On the second day, when our boat landed at Sabtang , we waited to register with some officials in an area between a church and a school. Our timing could not have been better; all the students were on the front lawn singing and shortly after, performing dance routines. This took place every morning before classes started. These poor little creatures had to do this routine in front of a pile of gawking tourists with cameras a few times a week. It was enough to make a child run away.
Shortly after, a woman I sat next to on the plane the day before rushed over and greeted me enthusiastically. She then told her older lady friends how she sat next to me on the plane and soon I found myself in a picture-taking ceremony with a large group of 60-something Filipina ladies I did not know. When I wrapped up with my new ladies, I was then asked to be in some more pictures with the local police officers (one of which was a police lady…yum). I kid you not when I tell you that they tried to set me up with the single police lady. It’s great when fantasies land in your lap but it sucks when you can’t do anything about them.
I reflected on this extra attention I received and as much as I wanted to attribute it to nice looks, nice hair, and even nicer breath, it was not so. It was probably due to the fact that of the 150 or more tourists, I was one of two white people.
The following morning at breakfast, I chatted with Emil, the husband of Evelyn the maid. It turned out he served as a chef on an oil tanker for 22 years. I asked him if he liked it and he returned, “Not really. I only did it for my kids. I had to pay for their education.” Emil told me he would be out at sea for anywhere between four to six months. His typical rotation would be six months on and three months off (although once he was on board for 11 months since they could not find a replacement for him). And just when Emil seemed like the greatest gent of our times, he outdid himself by letting me use one of his motorbikes for the remainder of my trip.
After the tour ended that day, I walked towards my dinner destination, Octagon Restarant. I spotted a tricycle parked on the side of the road so I went over to a group of fellas chilling outside nearby. One man stood up and tried to fetch the tricycle driver but his lady appeared and informed us he could not drive me since he had been drinking. Then the first man I spoke to offered to give me a ride himself on his motorbike. When we arrived, I thanked him and offered him some money but he refused. I told him my name, shook his hand and asked his. He replied, “The Principal of Uganda.”
As I took my seat, I spotted three ladies from my tour: Charmaine, Marian, and Gina. We decided it best for the world that we eat together. As I ate with them, I started to realize that most if not all Filipina ladies are extremely humble. My Filipina lady is extremely (perhaps dangerously) educated and quite accomplished in her career experiences but you wouldn’t know it when you speak with her. My lady dining companions were also quite understated about their achievements. The other thing that was reinforced is that any time you get some Filipina ladies together, please expect abundant and equal measures of chatting, smiling, and laughing.
The following day I drove the motorbike to the small fishing village of Diura. After parking my bike, I walked a little under a mile down a rough dirt road that went along the sea. I eventually ended up at what the locals refer to as “The Fountain of Youth”. Locals channeled a small stream into a manmade pool out in the middle of nowhere. The pool sat on the edge of a beach with no one in site. I took a dive into its healing waters, hoping to at least grow a few hairs back on my head.
As I drove around, people would often stop what they were doing and watch me pass by. It was a somewhat rare thing to see a whitey on their island but seeing one drive by on a Mountain Dew-colored motorbike was more bizarre than seeing an Eskimo parasailing in Iowa. Everywhere I went I was looked at and smiled at. As I entered a little canteen, I passed by some young boys and said “Hello gentlemen!”. They giggled and ran off. After I finished my meal, I took a quick dip in a small lagoon. When I went back to my bike, there were three goats trying to steal my bike. Punks.
For dinner, I was invited to dine with three other Filipina ladies at their exquisite guest house called Fundacion Pacita which was perched high on green hills right at the water’s edge. There was Susan, a gracious lady in her 70’s who ran an accomplished ballet studio and her two sensationally pleasant nieces, Trixie and Mia. As it turned out, Susan was the mother of one of the Philippines most famous ballet dancers, Lisa Macuja, who became the first Filipina prima ballerina and first foreign soloist to ever join the Kirov Ballet in Russia. Lisa is now in her early 50’s and still dances occasionally.
Susan took a liking to me partially because I’m dating one of her country-ladies and mostly because my manners are noteworthy. And…Susan-In-Her-Seventies promised to Facebook me! (Further proof that gurl still got it.)
The next day I hired a guide to hike up the top of nearby Mount Iraya. Once an active volcano, Iraya stands just over 1000 meters. Ferand, my guide, met me at 6AM and we proceeded to our start point. The hike was a tad brutal, due in large part to the fact that the trail went straight up with no hint of a switchback path. The further up you went, the less maintained the trail was. We were battling through dense vegetation making us feel like we were making our way through a 1970’s NBA All-Star afro.
Ferand did this nasty, wet, muddy hike in a worn pair of Air Jordans. When I asked him if he had another pair of shoes to change into afterwards, he answered no. But this is how it is in the Philippines and even more so in Batanes. People here are like cartoon characters in the sense they seem to do all their activities in the same outfit. Workers doing heavy construction work will look like they just walked off a basketball court (and will often be wearing flip flops).
Due to the grueling nature of the hike, we talked little. However we did manage to have short conversations whenever we took short breaks. I learned that Ferand was 22 and leaving Batanes for the first time in his life the following week. He was headed for Manila with some sort of Christian group. I really do wish I could have been there to watch his face as he flew in a plane and walked through a major, polluted, noisy city for the very first time in his life.
Later on I toured a little on the motorbike and decided to stop by the lighthouse just north of town. Once again, the locals looked at me in wonder. When I parked my bike near the lighthouse, a group of people were getting into a pickup truck and onto their motorbikes. A woman around 60 asked me if I had a companion with me. I told her no and that I was a lone wolf on this journey. She pointed at her younger lady friend and said, “How about her? She’s single!” I was simply falling in love with the fact that Batanes was trying to set me up with their single sisters.
And guess what? It happened again the next day! I ran into some nice folks at the Honesty Coffee Shop which is a completely unstaffed shop where you go in, take what you want and pay for it by simply putting your money into a wooden box. The daughter of the lady that started the shop 20 years ago mentioned herself as a potential candidate as the target of my affections. She then offered her visiting friend from Manila as another option. This island was like one big dating game show.
As fantastic as this was, it may have been surpassed by an experience I had later that day. Every day around 3:30PM, the town opens up the airport runway to the public so they can do whatever their heart desires (except skinny-dipping). I decided to light the strip up with my 100cc motorbike. Please soak in the video of my stunt.
My last full day in the Philippines ended up being an unexpected gift. I spent the day with Pam’s sister Nikki and her family. I got picked up by their driver Jun in the Mystery Machine and was driven to their home in Quezon City in Manila. When I entered their home, I was greeted instantly by the lovely and little Siri. She said “’to ‘tiss” and then proceeded to hug my leg for a length of time that would have been awkward if she had been an adult.
After lunch, Nikki, Diego, Bea, Kiara, and I engaged in an activity I was not expecting: ice skating. The mall culture in the Philippines is a potent one. In their enormous malls will be everything one could dream up, in this case, an ice skating rink on the fifth floor overlooking Manila. The rental skates were duller than a spoon and the ice was less smooth than the face of a 90-year old sea captain but we managed to have a great time. I took a devilish pride in simultaneously scaring and impressing Bea and Kiara as I built up a lot of speed and then sprayed them with snow as I executed a long dramatic hockey stop right next to them. Kiara took her revenge by forcing me to skate backwards while holding her hands for over an hour so she could have something to steady herself on.
The only logical thing to do after that was to experience my first ever acupuncture session by the hands of master healer and Asian-Warrior-Haircut-Fella Jake (Nikki’s husband). It was fantastic although I did not realize the after effects of “cupping”. Cupping is when the practitioner creates a powerful suction with, in this case, glass cups on the skin in efforts to bring about the benefits of a massage but in reverse (and to remove any lingering skank in your body). When I looked at my back later that night, it looked like a massive octopus had given me hickies all over my back. Would I “cup” again given the chance? Damn right I would.
This was followed by yet another logical choice of activities: Qigong (chi kung). Qigong is an activity designed to make you look like a Caucasian left wing radical that sweats incense and gathers with others in the more hidden parts of a large city park with the purpose of chanting and moving their body in ways that make Republicans nervous. That said, I did enjoy this more mellow form of Tai Chi and coupled with the acupuncture, I observed elevated levels of energy.
We all then ate with Jake’s family nearby which was glorious…the perfect last supper in my five-week pursuit of pleasure and profound culture. We discussed the family’s impressive pig breeding business, politics, my scandalous career as a comedian, and so many other things that stimulate the intellect.
The next morning, I said goodbye to Manila’s increasing heat and humidity and spent several hours flying back to Boston where I was forced to explain to my lady why I had large circular hickies all over my back.