We are just a few days into our month-in-Japan adventure and it already feels like forever and ago since we left Santa Fe. Having an incredible time so far, brimming with so much anticipation that we completely forgot to be jetlagged.
Correspondingly, coffee is surprisingly good here. Green tea is my friend. Sidewalk hot/cold refreshment vending machines are always within arms-reach across this country. As a result, we are making memories with every step, glance and meal. Adisa is having a gas so far - fearlessly curious.
The right time to be in Japan is this very moment; few tourists and a crazy good exchange rate while Covid restrictions mean everyone is masked and public smoking is frowned upon. Best of all, Fall is just unfolding. The Japanese love to orient around seasons which keeps that autumnal feeling even more top of mind. You see it in their clothing, signage and food menus. It’s Fall, dammit, get out your wool already.
Some emerging themes so far.
There is a wonderful balance to Japanese culture - a deep of respect of history seamlessly intertwined with well-designed modern experiences. From ancient temples and ubiquitous handmade crafts to robot helmets, fresh meal vending machines and ultra-modern cars which are much more sophisticated, slammed and sinewy - almost animal-like. Definitely not the rolling refrigerator-looking Toyotas they ship to the USA.
Japan works so well because customer service is off-the-charts, even with the considerable language divide. Gas stations are set up like Formula One pit stops with service teams of red Super Mario suited guys working on each car. Even when buying the smallest thing, sales employees walk you to (and thru) the door bowing as you leave. Locals intuitively approach us to offer help as we navigate crowded subway stations at rush hour. And best of all, there is no tipping allowed, so people help out of a willingness vs. expectation. Such a relief.
Every day is an unfolding adventure.
There is just something revitalizing about travel. It stretches and then rewards you. It makes you a better human being for venturing out to navigate the unknowns by relying more on your curiosity than a need for control. It’s all new, every second which means being in the moment, staying present to whatever comes your way with synapses firing. I love the feeling of my brain intuitively feeling its way around, sensorially navigating and fueled by wonder as I go.
Somehow, Adisa and I get by on hand signals, broken English and even more broken Japanese. No one knows us from Adam (check your emotional baggage re: fitting in, looking cool, acceptance is at face value). In Japan, all you need to do is stay present, soft spoken and be polite.
Emotional safety is back.
It’s been years since we’ve had this feeling of intuitive trust and safety. Through social media we’ve learned to be wary. Here, it feels very different. Perhaps it’s because there’s no media headlines blaring - or at least ones we can read. And so people lock their bikes with a thin stamped metal chain more out of habit than fear. Garages remain wide open all day to complete strangers across the city. People smile as they pass us checking to see if wee are lost. And Google Maps is next-level here, so we are never lost, no matter where we are. Late night walk after dinner to a local 8th century temple. No problem.
Back alley muse.
Osaka has been a fantastic place to start our adventure - a deep history obliterated by the war, now very modern, with a perfect urban vibe and manageable scale (vs. Tokyo). Osaka is the place tourists often pass over. That works for us. It is the Melbourne of Japan with an Anthony Bourdain-level obsession with street food. Restaurant signage blares and flashes deep into the night. And watch out for that 30 foot animated crab sign just above your head as you walk by. The streets are centuries old yet amazingly clean. Last night, we took a small guided evening back alley food tour where we ended up in a neighborhood called Shinsekai strolling to five different bar restaurants called Izakaya. Each its own wonderful hole-in-the-wall that has been perfecting their one signature dish for decades - still pretty much all they offer. Exquisite yakitori at one spot and orgasmic Onimiyaki in another. Local sake liberally sprinkled across all of them.
Tonight, our tour is led by Kevin, a warm, gregarious Canadian channeling SNL’s Mike Meyers. Kevin’s been in Osaka for 3 years, married to a lovely Japanese woman he met partying in Okinawa. They are expecting a first child at any moment. Literally. He is checking texts as we go to make sure she is ok. Kevin took us off the typical path to the locals-only neighborhoods which feel more authentic. We never would have found Shinsekai otherwise. Kevin is 42, a recovering heavy metal musician, former stoner, still drinker who has an uncanny ability to be able to translate Japanese culture into very relatable terms. The only other person on the food tour tonight is a larger than life German couples ‘intimacy therapist’ from Mannheim named Nina Deissler. (Look her up) She loves to connect, share her insights on the human condition while enjoying her sake.
During the course of the evening, Kevin teaches us about food, inter generational family traditions and the unspoken rules of drinking and karaoke. Nina gets to the heart of the matter and begins asking questions about the rules of engagement in the directly adjacent red light district which leads to the requisite nocturnal expedition. Sake soothes our nerves as we commence as a foursome eyes wide open into the night. Kevin color commentates, whispering in our ears on the correct pacing, eye contact, decorum, hand/face gestures to signal interest vs. “keep walking” by the ladies of the night we pass.
We are not in charge - it’s their turf. And btw, the turf is immaculate with scrubbed sidewalks, clean signage and perfectly lit like a movie set. Protection looms nearby from the Japanese mafia who like to weightlift at the local second story gym. Kevin knowingly points to the building as if he hangs with them. We slowly parade the back streets with open ground floors. Imagine converted garages turned into beautifully arranged welcome rooms. There is an ornate stairway at the rear of the room if you a re deemed worthy. Kevin reminds us these rooms are centuries old. A tattoo-free woman sits squarely inside each one, perfectly illuminated and looking right out at us. Its very halting and direct. They don’t flinch. A few wave enthusiastically as if on a parade float as you move by. Feels like a weird, fascinating dark video game.
In Japan, the oldest profession is alive and well in Osaka, accepted by the city, its inhabitants and carefully monitored all at the same time. Each woman is paired with a grandmother-type who plays the vigilant adult, sizing up the prospects (including Adisa and Nina who seem very intrigued) as we walk by. We later learned the grandmothers use discreet mirrors to do a full reconnaissance of each person before you even get into their view. Nina comments: “In life, we first build and then run thru the mazes of our own design”
On to Kyoto….