I take it as a point of pride that I so rarely ‘lose my shit’. Last Saturday, I lost my shit. I lost it pretty bad. We got to Tokyo on Thursday (via the bullet train!) and by Saturday I was a little tired of the crowds in Shibuya and Harajuku, so I decided (wrongly) to do something spontaneous, picked a random location in my guidebook, and took a train to the outskirts of Tokyo without a map.
That’s how I ended up in Kamakura. Kamakura was once the old old capital of Japan before Tokyo (née Edo) and Kyoto and it still kind of looks like rural New Hampshire (“Live free or Die” or die) in the way that once you get off the train platform, you’re immediately either find yourself in the wilderness or still standing on the train tracks. There are – of course – temples and Zen gardens (Japan’s first temple dedicated to women who survived abusive relationships is in Kamakura, which is pretty neat), quaint shops selling Yuzu peels preserved in sugar, a scenic tram, the cleanest FamilyMart toilet I’ve ever seen, and a beach, which make Kamakura sort of breathtaking.
It all sounds good so far, but things turned super crappy incredibly fast. On my way back to Tokyo to grab dinner with a friend, I somehow got on the wrong train (I say somehow, but what I really mean is that I didn’t properly check the platforms, which naturally only had signs in Japanese) and was ready to transfer to the Metro on one stop south of Tokyo station. Then, a few minutes before my transfer, there was some sort of announcement in Japanese, and the train took off – rapidly – to the left, entering a tunnel. By the time I got cell service, we were about four stations away and I started to panic. The worst thing about my panic? Panicking on a train with to the brim silent, stoic Japanese who showed no signs of any emotions (nor should they have). I tried to stop myself from hyperventilating as we went for nearly an hour at a rather rapid speed, so far West out of Tokyo that I’m pretty sure we were no longer in the city.
We whizzed through station after station and I was just so terrified that we wouldn’t be stopping for hours. Once we actually stopped, it took me about an hour and a half to get back to south of the city. It had been so long since I was that petrified. I sat on the edge of my seat, next to some guy who clearly did not understand why I had moved to the seat closest to the door just minutes before, shaking, and silently hoping that the train would stop in the next several hours. We had taken the Shinkansen (aka the fastest train in the world!) a few days back and I didn’t want to embark on another five hour adventure somewhere in Japan. The Shinkansen itself had been incredible though. Looking out the window, I could feel myself get slightly nauseated by the speed at which we were going and the ways my ears kept popping from the tunnels.
I loved Japan, but staying there long-term would have killed me. Or rather, Japanese food would have killed me. But it would have been a delicious, sweet sweet death. Everything in Japan has soy sauce – shoyu – and while yes, soy sauce is delicious, eating anything containing it (or ramen, or miso, or loads of other stuff) makes my face puff up, my throat swell, and my digestive system… well, let’s leave it at that. I could barely eat anything in Japan, although Japanese mochi melts in your mouth much more than the car-tire textured mochi we have back in the States.
On the subject of food, Japanese FamilyMarts are beyond. They have fermented bean natto rice balls (the japanese equivalent of 臭豆腐 stinky tofu, but a lot more palatable), ume-flavored potato chips which taste like sweet and sour pickled plum, and calpis (even alcoholic calpis sours!). Now okay, despite the silly name, Calpis is pretty amazing. Much like it’s other misunderstood cousin, Pocari Sweat (which is like a gatorade that doesn’t taste disgusting), Calpis is a quintessentially Japanese drink – a fermented yogurt soda that manages to be a perfect blend of Yoplait and Colt 45.
Another thing that I didn’t quite get is how most Japanese restaurants begin meals with giant plates filled with cabbage and vinegar. I love both cabbage and vinegar, but I never assocaited that two with Japanese cuidine. What I do associate with Japanese meals is the fresh fish and when I went back to Tsukiji market, I had that giant amazing scallop on the half-shell I had eatenin Japan last time (soy sauce be damned!), but we also got to walk around among rows of fatty tuna, boiled octopus, fried lotus fish cakes, and kobe beef.
Food in Japan just tastes so much better and if I could actually eat any of it (without consequences), that would be enough reason to stay.
Another thing I still don’t understand is why Japanese toilets are so clean and why Chinese toilets are a war zone. Japanese toilets are gifts that have been sent from heaven. They not only have the ability to flush toilet paper (which isn’t something I should be proud of by this point, but I live in China, where the sewage system is clogged with gutter oils), but they also play music to distract others from any noises, have warmed seats, a rear washer with adjustable pressure and temperature, and above all they are pristinely clean. Chinese bathrooms are the stuff of nightmares. I have never ever been to an office bathroom that did not look as if someone peed on the toilet seat, the floor, the handle, and the walls, and anywhere but the bowl. Even in the grimiest temple in Kamakura, the bathrooms were amazing.
All in all, I love Japan.