The last country we’re visiting on this trip – and, more specifically, the last stop on our extremely poorly planned two month sojourn to Asia – is Japan. Good old Japan, the Land Of The Rising Sun, home of the Samurai and the birthplace of Pokemon, sushi, cartoon pornography, bonsai trees, and sumo wrestling. I’m really excited for Japan, mostly because I picked it and it’s my last chance to redeem myself as a picker of countries to travel to, after keeping our year interesting with hilarious selections like Morocco and Bulgaria and an assortment of Latin American countries that have filled out our collective list of places that were interesting to visit once and that neither of us would dare return to again. Also, I know a guy who lived here for a couple of years teaching English as a second language, and he came back to Canada with a Japanese toilet and a Japanese wife. I like both of them very much; the toilet has a heated seat and a laser-guided anus cleaner, and the wife is a very pretty, kind, and interesting person. In short, I have high hopes for Japan.
After booking our flights to Japan we started reading a little bit about it and determined that our unplanned itinerary would set us in the country right in the middle of something called “cherry blossom season”, where the trees all turn pink and the cities all look like they belong in a Disney movie.
“Lucky us!”, I naively thought.
“Everything I’m reading says that Japan looks very pretty in cherry blossom season. This is such a pleasant surprise; I’m sure there will be very few other tourists there, because the weather is really shitty still, so we’ll probably just get the bonus of super-duper awesome scenery to offset the single-digit temperatures and this will just be splendid!”
Apparently the benefit of wisdom has not yet been imparted on me in my old age. Cherry blossom season is, in reality, the absolute worst time to try to visit Japan if you’re not the type of person who likes to plan things out months in advance. And when I say months in advance, I’m not being dramatic; I mean that most guesthouses and hotels begin taking bookings during cherry blossom season at least six months prior to the expected cherry blossom bloom. As you could imagine, the availability of accommodation anywhere close to a major center during cherry blossom season for a couple of idiots who didn’t start looking for a place until the cherries already started to blossom was, well, nonexistent. And thus, Amanda and I are spending our first five days in Japan hiding in relative isolation as we wait for the trees to wither and die and the hotels to open back up. I swear to God it’s easier to go to Mars than to go someplace like Kyoto in April. We lucked out in a major way and found two beds in a dorm in the town of Nara, which was only one and a half short hours away from the Osaka airport by train – that’s where we made a beeline to after landing in the country.
We got to Nara easy enough thanks to the miracle of transportation engineering that’s collectively known as the Japanese Rail Network. Japanese railways are the stuff of legend, and rightfully so – it’s by no means your average railway system. Honestly, it feels more like a city-wide rail system than a country-wide rail system; it’s kind of like the London Underground, but amped up on methamphetamine. Trains runs constantly, you can literally get anywhere in the entire country on the network, and depending on your budget you can do it with miraculous speed; the bullet trains run at speeds up to three hundred kilometres per hour. The most amazing part is that everything is scheduled down to the minute, and nothing is ever late. Even the Swiss rail system looks like it was designed by a pack of uneducated Neanderthals by comparison. It is, of course, confusing as hell to figure out, but we’ve found that if you walk around with a puzzled expression on your face it will only take a few minutes for a bilingual Japanese citizen to run up to you and point you in the right direction.
Nara is full of temples and deer. Blah blah blah, it was the first permanent capital of Japan, there are no fewer than eight distinct UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the city, and this one time twelve hundred years ago a God rode into the city on a white deer and ever since then the local people have revered and protected deer as sacred. This is really fun, because you’re actually encouraged to feed the animals in Nara. According to a local sightseeing guide that an overly helpful local provided me with:
“The deer in Nara Park eat grass, bamboo leaves, and buds. But Shika Senbei (deer crackers) is their favourite food. You can buy these crackers at several spots around the park. The deer in this park are so polite that they bow to you when they ask you for Shika Senbei!”
This is enlightening for two reasons. First of all, it fully explains why Japanese tourists are perpetually getting in trouble in Canada for walking directly up to wild moose and bears and mountain goats and not realizing that these particular animals have not been trained to ear deer crackers over the past 1,200 years and can, in fact, easily kill a human being at a moment’s notice and without any provocation or warning. Second of all, the part about the deer bowing is actually true, and this is probably the best symbolic representation of how polite and well-behaved Japanese people are – even their wild animals have better manners than half of the people I know in Canada.
So, after killing a couple of nights in Nara feeding deer crackers to the deer and marvelling at the half-dozen immaculately preserved historical and cultural sites, we headed on over to Kinosaki. Kinosaki is nowhere near Nara and was nowhere near the top of our list of places to visit in Japan, but there was a single hotel room available during the last weekend of cherry blossom season, and it was possible to get there in a few short hours thanks to the miraculous rail network.
Kinosaki is not full of temples and deer; rather, it is full of naked Japanese people. It’s a tiny little town in the mountains of Northern Kansai, and is famous for the abundance of Onsen that are present. An Onsen is a traditional Japanese hot spring, fed by natural mineral water and purported to impart visitors with numerous health benefits along with the obvious bonus of being a very warm and steamy place to spend a cold and rainy day. There are seven public Onsen in Kinosaki, all of which are decked out with various additions such as saunas and steam rooms and lounge areas, and all of which can be accessed on an unlimited basis for only twelve dollars. Of course, they’re nude baths, just like the ones in Korea, so most of the pictures I’ll be able to show you of our first five days in Japan will be of deer and not of naked Japanese people. What a respectful tourist I am. Now, If you need to kill a couple of days in Japan, Kinosaki is a great place to do it. We spent three days and two nights there, and we went to the spa five or six times; when we weren’t in the spa, we were slowly strolling up and down Kinosaki’s one main street or sleeping. It was great.
I would also like to take this opportunity to note that the contrast between space-age technology and traditional living is probably even more visible in Japan than it was in Korea, and it’s again absolutely hilarious to observe as an outsider. I have imaginary conversations like this in my head all the time:
Sam Johnson: “So, you guys have the whole country connected with super-high-speed bullet trains that travel at three hundred kilometres per hour, which is, amazingly, a full one-quarter of the speed of sound. I’ve been shitting in toilets equipped with laser-guided anus cleaners and heated seats, and every time I order food at a restaurant I do it by inputting my preferences to a multi-lingual robot.”
Hypothetical Japanese Person: “Yup, we Japanese are known around the world for our mastery of cutting-edge engineering, robotics, and automation. Thanks for noticing!”
SJ: “No problem. My personal area of expertise is civil engineering; would you care to explain to me what sort of advancements the Japanese have applied to, say, building homes? For example, insulation, central heating, cutting-edge construction materials, things like that?”
HJP: “Insulation? Central heating? What witchcraft is this you speak of? We build our houses out of paper and balsa-wood, of course, and we heat them by burning kerosene indoors. How the fuck else would you do it?”
SJ: “Oh, that explains why it smells like gas in here and why I’m freezing my fucking nuts off. By the way, I accidentally put my fist through that wall over there when I was putting my sweater on, because it’s made of paper, so sorry about that.”
HJP: “That’s alright. Want to go get naked and take a bath together?”
SJ: “Sure, why the fuck not.”
Never change, Japan. Never change.