A window on Japan, Part I
26.04.2013 - 09.05.2013 20 °C
How are you? As you know, I am having the time of my life - and having seen and lived what I've already seen and lived, one starts to wonder if there could still be something that could surprise and amaze you. That's when Japan comes and knock at your door. Mesmerizing Japan. Every day is different, as different are the faces of Japan. And when I say different, I mean really different. I've never seen things so beautiful yet so simple like in Japan, like a small garden in front of a common residential house, but also such a crazy environment like Akihabara where everything overlaps with everything on multiple layers. It is incredibly easy to use different and sometimes contrasting adjectives for the same thing, as it is the case for this country. I need to say that as for now I have only see a few things around Japan, namely Tokyo and the cities of Kawaguchiko, Kamakura and Nikko, in the same region. So my idea of Japan ia for the moment limited, but the next post based on the second half of my Japanese experience will try to complement this one.
Japan is definitely known for the feeling inspired by simple, yet beautiful lines, be these in its architecture, art or way of life. This is not to call them "minimalist", as this would imply a poorness in the shapes and colors that is absolutely not the case. The reality is a careful choice of the smallest details in complete harmony with the whole. This results in powerful lines, able to move feelings and arouse interest with the smallest gesture. Take this kimono for example - it looks perfect, simple, and harmonious. However, it is composed by many layers and multiple parts, so that it might take 1 hour for novices to wear it and at least 20 minutes for more experts women:
Another example are the roofs of the temples. I know that this might be irrelevant for many, but I am just fascinated by them. The detail in the form of an upward corner makes the whole difference, and create a rooftop worth to look at, instead of a simple plain one:
Look at this sculpture, in the main hall of the hotel Peninsula, a name that I remember since I was a little kid associated to one of the best hotel worldwide, and for sure one of the most luxurious (that is why, dressed up like the backpacker I am, I only dared enter around 2am when I was wandering around the city waiting to get to the fish market early in the morning). Look at the shapes, look at the atmosphere it creates. Even though on the circles stands something that could be described as a big sausage, it perfectly fits the whole and inspire a strong feeling of elegance:
When considering Tokyo, a few blocks away from the things described above, another city appears. The city owned by a new generation, that almost rebelliously has created something that oppose the concept of simplicity. Elegance and order are replaced by an extravaganza of colors, sounds and shapes in neighborhoods like Shibuya or Akihabara. Take Shibuya first, the commercial hub of all teenagers (especially girls), who own the area by dressing up with such fancy and creative clothes that really make you feel you belong some place else. As a side note, I've never met a people that is such a fashionista - when we think we see somebody dressed up originally in Europe, it would pale in front of those guys. Colors, shapes, everything is mixed up in the same outfit, and even though sometimes this goes beyond the limits, in general make me wish I could also pull off something like that! It is also quite cool to be completely surrounded by all kind of people, and this is easily done by standing in the middle of one of the busiest street crossing worlwide - the one in Shibuya. Notice that the red light only stays on for a minute or so, no more, and that's enough for so many people to gather:
Then, above all, there is Akihabara. A place that know no comparison in the whole world. Akihabara is the electronic centre of the city, embodied in the giant shops selling everything and a sum of smaller shops selling what is not sold in the big ones. Yes, if it exists and it has an electronic component, you can find it here. But evenmore interestingly, Akihabara is the centre of the manga & anime culture!!! And for those who know me and sometimes are ashamed of me because of that, well... I am a big fan of such things! You could simply say that manga are comics and anime are cartoons, but here there is a whole world about them. Every week the new releases are out, and hordes of people of all kind come to Akihabara to purchase a few of them, to buy older ones missing in their collection, or even just stand there and read them on the spot - it is allowed!. Usually you might find them in a small magazine shop, but Akihabara allows you to explore manga palaces with multiple floors, and it literally becomes a maze out of which it is difficult to find an exit, both literally and not (meaning that often, related to manga's and anime's world, passion becomes obsession - go to Akihabara and you'll understand what I mean)
Something that I got suggested by a friend and that revealed itself to be quite an interesting experience, was the visit to a "maid cafe". What is it? A maid cafe is a special kind of cafe to be found around this neighborhood, in which a group of girls dressed up based on a special manga serves you coffee, on which with their high and playful voice they cast a spell to make it taste better. The setting was so... indescribable, that I had to take an (official) picture. Moreover, I was given the card of Level 1 Master - valid for a lifetime. I mean, wow!!! And look at me how cute I look!!! 可愛い !!!
......awkward silence? Yes I know, but I already posted a picture of me jumping naked in a salt desert, I see no point in stopping posting awkward pictures!
Back to Akihabara, if you then add also the videogame world, and mix it all up in a shaker, you get a tremendous cocktail, but it is such a mess that is fascinating:
Oh, the food. I am loving the "eating" part of the day in Japan. Of course, I was a sushi fan already before coming to Japan, and eating the real thing only confirmed me that sushi is one of the best thing to be found in Japan. I started at the source, the Tsukiji's fish market, the world's biggest, where I got around 4am so to be able to see the (in)famous tuna auction, where every sort of tuna is brought from around the world and then sold in an auction. Here you see a few big fishes with a potential customer, checking color, texture and degradation over time of the tunas:
And then, when the tuna is chosen, it gets elaborated by sushi chefs, who transform it in something delicious, accompanied by many other tasty fishes and seafood. This picture is of one of the best sushi places at the market, where already around 7am there is a long queue to get a place - but considering the quality of the product, is absolutely worth the waiting, a fish-based breakfast with the freshest ingredients you could ever imagine!
Then, besides quality, things can get creative. So let me present you with two "specials" of the house in another sushi place: first we have the golden sushi, with a base of the very best super fatty tuna (the fattier the better, as it melts on the tongue like butter), with a combination of sea urchins, fish eggs and other things I don't know. Ah, and gold leaves! This was the most expensive piece on the menu - 5$. Good and cheap, this is sushi in Japan.
Second is... this poor little guy. He was swimming happily, before the chef decided to make a show and... made a nigiri out of him. Here is a typical sequence of "before & after" - time laps: 2 minutes! Here is before:
And ta-daaaaa, here is after! (love the guy's smile!)
But please, let's not limit Japanese food to sushi! There is so much more... in particular, I've grown fond of ramen, this chinese-style noodle soup borrowed and remastered under the Japaneses. Tastier soup ever, so good that you are gonna slurp it all at the end of the meal! Good thing about this is that it is one of the cheapest meal to be found. Moreover, like a good Japanese friend of mine told me while slurping my first bowl, every ramen is different. Some restaurants focus on the soup, some on the noodles, some on the toppings! Either way, it is always tasty!
And then there are the other soups, udon and soba, then the yakitori, the bbq, the tempura, okonomiyaki and way more! Japan is extremely variated in food, and every day you could eat a different speciality. Something I like to do is go in a 7/11, a small supermarket, and randomly chose an onigiri (rice triangle with fillings) without knowing the content, and let myself be surprised. You can imagine sometimes the surprises are not that good....
Landscapes in Japan are stunning. Amazing views can be found in the city in the several gardens, like those in prestigious homes, the perfect image of what everbody thinks when hearing the word Japanese garden. For example the one in the imperial villa in Nikko:
Buddhist temples and shrines are something special. They are a complex of multiple buildings, often colored with bright colors, immersed in the forest. Shintoist shrines are especially interesting as they do not refer to any particular god, but mostly to a minor deity or spirit that is said be related with that particular place, and hence people visit the shrine to express their wishes and buy amuletes that hold the power of such place:
The thing I love more about the shrines is however the gate at the entrance, called torii, which I think is definitely the most powerful element of the whole shrine complex. They are sometimes made of grey stone, sometimes of red-painted wood, but they always emit a carratteristic aura in my opinion, even when surrounded by many people:
And now let's get to the most scenic landscape of all Japan: Mt. Fuji. It is indeed impressive, its perfect conic shape with just the top covered in snow make it somehow too "right" to be true. Many Japanese told me they consider the Matterhorn, the most famous mountain of my country (Switzerland) to be more scenic than Mt. Fuji. I have never seen the Matterhorn and I am deeply ashamed of this, so a comparison is difficult. However, Mt. Fuji during this particular flower festival and despite the few clouds, looks majestic:
Or better phrased, full of friends! Here in Tokyo I had the luck to bring some of my friends, that almost only by chance were here in town. But getting to know a city with somebody that knows where to go is a relief from time to time, and after having travelled for a while alone it really felt good to share the day with somebody I knew from before. So here just a few pics of me and them:
My first local guide: Jun. He basically introduced me to everything in one day, he made me savour the best of the city in a splendid way! That's how I got to taste my first delicious bowl of ramen, enjoy my first experience in an izakaya (the japanese verision of a pub) where beer and (oh so good) sake flew quite heavily, together with some tremendously tasty snacks, to be followed by a great dinner at a bbq place with his friends and finally some good deal of dancing in a club in Roppongi till morning. I mean... what more could we have done? This was Tokyo baby =)
The next meeting is the definition of fate, and the proof that the world is indeed small! I met Yusai in a hostel in Quito, and during breakfast we talked for about 20mins and no more, but we still exchanged contacts. Then, a few weeks later, I saw a familiar face walking around La Boca, in Buenos Aires - yes, it was Yusai! So we agreed to meet each other when I would come to Japan, and here I was with him, during his photo exibition of his fantastic world tour! The flag you see is his "heart flag", on which many people he met or talked to wrote their names - an irreplaceable souvenir of an amazing adventure (I am pointing at my name)! After this, and after having defined my name in Kanji (若誇最 (ジャコも) - young*proud*most), we spent an amazing evening with a few good friends in Chiba, enjoying a okonomiaki (kind of an omelette) and some drinks & japanese snacks at an izakaya! His final quote about his world tour? "We are all one people".
The big surprise! It wasn't until recently that discovered that Kevin, friend from back home at the university, moved to Japan.... so we met up, and together with his girlfriend we enjoyed the gold sushi and fresh fish I told you about before. After spending a lovely day at Yoyogi Park, we ended up doing a veeeery juvenile thing: we went to see the new Dragonball movie!!! No subtitles, so... well, it was fun! And we also got to enjoy a nice end of the evening in an izakaya... then I left Tokyo for a few days, but I had to come back. Why? Well I had to get my Chinese visa but also... a surprise happened in the meantime! Here is me ruining the picture of a new beautiful family: Congratulations again!!!
And this is Japan. Or at least, a first window on it! There is still so much to come and so much I will not see, but considering the amount of words I used to describe my first part of travel in Japan and the number of pictures I decided to post, you may easily guess how enthusiastic I am about being here! I will refrain myself to talk about the next part of my trip based in Asia, why it is different and why I have been looking forward for it to begin. This post is too long already, I hope I will find the time in the next one.
I am now planning to slowly move South, making a major stop in Kyoto but also many in between cities, to finally arrive in the region of Fukuoka for the end of the month, from where a plane will bring me to China. I really hope that you guys might still be interested in following me, I will try my best best to keep you hooked to my adventures, so that I will be able to share if just for a bit my adventures in these amazing countries.
I wish you all the best, and as always, leave a comment if you feel like!
Cheers from Tokyo,