Japan is a mix of stunning unforgettable natural beauty, and a seemingly lack of consciousness about the environment. A storybook looking factory of some kind situated in a lush green landscape unfolding before our eyes yet with an incinerator in the back belching black smoke. Driving on a scenic highway winding our way up a mountain we would suddenly come to a curve where in some almost Jungian collective consciousness people threw trash out of cars—soiled diapers, food containers, garbage, you name it.
But on the same trip near the famous Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest fresh water lake, a stop on a journey south at an ordinary looking cluster of shops revealed some of the most amazing textiles. Jackets, scarves, shirts, bathrobes and more all made locally with designs and patterns that evoked classical Japan. A stay at the resort on the small rocky outcropping of Urishima, which reminded me of the James Bond movie “Dr. No” with its caves that were once probably lava tubes extending from the heart of the lava core to the ocean. The traditional tatami room with a futon, waves crashing from the Pacific Ocean outside the window, gave me one of the best slumbers I had in years.
Japan is at best a place of magic and on the other end of the spectrum, a place where you could purchase sake from a vending machine, hot or cold on the walkway to the Zen temple, Ryōan –ji (with the world-famous rock garden). By the time the bullet train arrived in Tokyo, I was ready for anything. After checking in our rooms, I decided to relax with a gin & tonic. The “ice tray” in the room’s small refrigerator had the tiniest ice cubes I’ve ever seen. I mean, almost microscopic. So I did what one would do in America. I called room service and requested ice. What arrived was a chuck of ice, obviously knocked a large block of ice. Well, necessity is the mother of invention. I wrapped the chuck of ice, about the size of a cantaloupe, in a towel and proceeded to smash it as quietly as possible on the tile floor in the bathroom until I had pieces that would fit in a glass. (Later, this chunk of ice showed up on my hotel bill: $25.00!)
We watched a TV channel in English while we all enjoyed cheeseburgers, fries, pie and ice cream with tall neck Buds from the room service menu. The food was excellent. It was good to have my American taste buds in play again. Our suite, which we decided to share to save money with separate beds, faced Mt. Fuji, something we had requested so I could view this mystical symbol of Japan. Except the smog and low clouds obscured the view and all I could see was an unending grayness.
Our last night there we decided to go out. My host said there was a great Italian restaurant that was all the buzz then. So we managed somehow to get reservations and off we went. The restaurant was a large rectangular room with a high ceiling with murals on the walls. There were two isles going the length of the restaurant. One each side and in the middle were rows of tables. Our table was located on the right side when you walked in towards the back and close to the kitchen. The ironies began immediately. A group of Japanese musicians strolled around the restaurant singing “O sole mio.” Yep, that was the only song they knew. If you just happened to look at them, they assumed you wanted them to serenade your table. Of course, when they were done they expected a tip. Now I love Italian songs, but hearing the same one over and over and over again. Mama mia! When they came to our table, uninvited, I gave them an American twenty-dollar bill and pointed to the table next to ours, which almost instantaneously got hit with our merry troubadours.
The meal was great. A simple salad dressed with a divine olive oil began our meal followed by a perfect Ragú Napoletano with a bottle of excellent Chianti Riserva Classico. Or, maybe we had two bottles? I didn’t care. I was in heaven. And a spumoni for dessert brought me to new gastronomical heights and left me speechless it was so delicious. The bill arrived and quickly brought me back to earth but still speechless. After all, this was Tokyo and we were eating at the one of the “in” restaurants. The total bill with gratuity was what my total food budget was for a month back home, and probably my neighbor’s next door too. Oh, mama, mama mia!
We left with my thoughts focused not on the night sights of glittering downtown Tokyo passing by our cab’s window, but what my American Express bill would look like next month. Musing over a hot sake back in our hotel suite, still peering through the inky darkness, hoping to catch a glimpse of the moon shinning on Mt. Fuji I realized I just had a lifetime of experiences while visiting Japan. The food, the sights and even the incongruities of this very different culture that is closed to so many Westerners, with all this I was lucky to have been included by not only my host family but others and made to feel like more than just another gaijin.
And, after all, I was an honorary Japanese now: I had done the octopus gonads shooter and survived to tell the tale.
An interesting side note: A year after I returned, I began my now almost twenty-five year practice of the martial art Aikido. I had no direct contact with any martial artists while there, or at least that I knew about. I was near the hometown of the famous Aikido teacher Motomichi Anno Sensei on the way to Urishima and hop, skip and jump further south was O Sensei, the Founder of Aikido’s birthplace, Tanabe. I did drink water from the sacred Nachi Falls so all I can say is that is was probably, “in the water.”
Paul Rest lives in Sonoma County, California. He has been enjoying California wines and foods since arriving in California. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by Paul Rest / Edited, Karie Engels Giffin