Thursday, January 21, 2010

Eat Walk Eat Walk: My Winter Holiday: Kyoto & Tokyo

As my Scottish coworker would say, I am one lucky sausage. I am lucky because I have some truly great friends, and one of them decided to fly allll the way to Japan so we could spend our winter holiday together. Yippee! Here are a just a few photos and highlights from our time together in Kanazawa, Kyoto and Tokyo.
Torii gates at Fushimi-Inari Taisha, Kyoto                                                                                                                 There are more than 10,000 of these gates, stretching for 4 kilometers, up a forested hill dotted with small shrines. We followed the path, eventually walked through all 10,000, and were rewarded with a view of the city. Each torii is marked with a few Japanese characters, which I assumed were ancient words of Shinto wisdom. Um, no. Turns out the toriis are sponsored by corporations, so they basically say shit like "Top Ramen" and "McDonald's" and whatever is the equivalent of Walmart in Japan. But there is some logic to this lameness: Inari is the God of business, so the gates are supposed to bring wealth and success.

Nishiki Market, Kyoto

Jam packed with vendors hawking freshly pounded mochi, a rainbow of pickled vegetables, homemade rice crackers and skewered street food, Nishiki Market made my brain crackle with overstimulated food lover's anxiety. I wanna try that! Look at this! What are those? That smells good! We stopped at a little stand for grilled oysters with lemon and giggled with gluttonous glee. As we wandered through the over-300-year-old market, I nibbled a giant fish cake wrapped with bacon, and decided it was possibly the best thing I've tasted in Japan.

Cooking Class, Kyoto                                       

Thankfully, Cathy is perfectly happy spending the majority of our trip shoving delicious things into our mouths. We signed up for a cooking class and were extremely pleased to discover it would be held in our teacher's spacious home kitchen. There was only one other student, an adorable Chilean gal living in Brazil, and together we prepared homemade dashi for a soup, teriyaki fish, a super tasty rice, chicken and veggie dish, and a spinach & shitake salad with sesame dressing. Our soft spoken teacher, Mariko, was the perfect hybrid of a modern and traditional Japanese woman, and the class was a definite highlight of our trip. She served us tea and cool slices of slick persimmon for dessert. 


Remember that scene in Adventures in Babysitting when the big, scary, deadpan dude says "Nobody leaves this place without singing the blues?" Well, that's pretty much just like Japan, except instead of the blues it's karaoke. You gotta do karaoke in Japan. It's pretty much mandatory. To my shock and amazement, my gal Cathy admitted she was a karaoke virgin. So Christmas night, instead of sipping eggnog and baking Jesus shaped Christmas cookies, we sang our faces off. Wham! Snoop Dogg. Cher. Hank Williams. No cheesy 80's ballad was left unsung. This proved to be a warm-up for Kyoto, where we would link up with some superfun hostel dwellers for a late-night karaoke extravaganza. Those with stage fright needn't worry; in Japan you get your own karaoke private room, a remote control to pick your songs, a tambourine (!) and all-you-can-drink soda. No one notices the tall cans of Asahi you smuggle in with your purse.


Always up for something a bit bizarre and out of the ordinary, Cathy and I found ourselves booking "rooms" at a capsule hotel in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. They only had "luxury capsules" left which meant we got a chair and a tiny desk in addition to our little cubby hole. So luxurious. It was actually quite nice, compared to a hostel dorm room, where you don't get a little privacy curtain.

In Tokyo we continued our habit of walking approximately 132,000 miles a day, until our legs ached and our feet threatened to pop off our ankles.

One morning we joined masses of other fish fans at Tsukiji Market, the world's largest wholesale fish market, where sumo-wrestler sized tuna are auctioned off in the wee hours of morning for hundreds of thousands of dollars each. We went for breakfast, but by 9:30am the queues at the most popular sushi counters were already two-hours deep. Fuck that noise. Instead we opted for fresh fish, sans the hype, and nibbled on perfectly delicious nigiri and hand rolls at a crowded counter manned by an old chef who looked like he could slice sashimi in his sleep. We also strolled Kappabashi, an entire neighborhood devoted to selling kitchen gadgets, cookware and the fake, but incredibly real looking, plastic food displays used by so many restaurants.

New Year's Eve, Tokyo

It turns out our Kyoto karaoke buddies were also spending New Year's in Tokyo, so we pieced together a 13 person posse and headed for Shibuya to ring in 2010. Normally I am turned off by traveling with such a big group of sorta-strangers: no one can agree where to go, people wander off, one girl gets too drunk and locks herself in the bathroom barfing. But no such shenanigans occurred and it turned into one of the best New Year celebrations I can remember. When the clock struck midnight, we were standing shoulder to shoulder in Shibuya Crossing, with masses of people from around the world, under the pulsing neon lights and massive plasma screens fixed to the sides of buildings.

As we weaved through the crowd, in search of a bar, we hugged strangers, shook their hands, called "Happy New Year" to everyone in our path, and really meant it. My cheeks ached from smiling. I felt connected to every single person on the street. I wasn't thinking about the future or the past or people I wished were with me or getting another beer. I was completely in the moment and so happy to be there.