Lifestyle Strategies, Travel, Adventures--Todd's Wanderings » Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net Travel Articles, Adventures and Advice Thu, 03 Nov 2011 15:31:04 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.2.1 Experience Tokyo’s Creative Youth Culture in Yoyogi Park http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/08/yoyogi-park-tokyo-japan-guide.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/08/yoyogi-park-tokyo-japan-guide.html#comments Wed, 31 Aug 2011 12:06:43 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=966 Read full article...

Experience Tokyo’s Creative Youth Culture in Yoyogi Park is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Creative culture in Tokyo's Yoyogi Park on the Sunday

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It is hard not to drool cliches when writing about Japan these days, especially when talking about the eclectic youth culture located in Harajuku, Tokyo. Just about every guidebook (this site included 10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo) recommends “people gawking” along the Jingu Bridge where you can usually catch Japan’s insanely strange youth fashion. You’ll find everything from Lolita to goth, french maids with a sweet spot for fake blood, to cross dressing little bow peeps.

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At times the Jingu Bridge area just next to Harajuku station feels a bit contrived, teenagers dressed up waiting to have their picture taken by photographers, hoping to land in a fashion magazine. Don’t get me wrong, it is fun to gawk, and if you are headed to Meiji Shrine you have to pass over the bridge anyway (this is another must see in Tokyo). But if you are looking for a slightly more authentic creative spirit continue past the bridge towards Yoyogi Park.

Travel Tip: Your best chance at premium gawking is on a Sunday when most people are out on the bridge and running around Yoyogi Park (yes, rebellious youth have to work and go to school on the weekdays too).

Map of Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi Park

To get to Yoyogi park, just cross the Jingu Bridge and instead of turning right into the Meiji Shrine with the large, beautiful, shaded, wooden torii gate, take a left and follow the sidewalk around the corner to the right. You’ll see the Harajuku entrance to the park right in front of you along with some delicious street food vendors!


Do you like these maps? Let me know if you find these helpful and I will try to include more detailed instructions on retracing my wanderings for those who want to follow along.

Guide to Yoyogi Park Tokyo

Yoyogi Gyoen (park) is Tokyo’s largest and has a number of wonderful wooded areas that will make you forget about city life for a short while. The park comes into its own on Sundays when groups gather from all over Tokyo to meet and share their mutual interest in just about anything you can think of. This includes everything from skateboarding, to freestyle cycling, African drum circles, dance troupes, cross dressing senior citizens, bird watchers, musicians, jugglers, martial arts and students practicing for upcoming plays.

For me this is where the excitement of the Japanese culture is on display best. You will still get outrageous fashions of the young and bored. But what you will get more of is the Japanese predilection for forming groups and trying to perfect a certain task. It doesn’t matter what that task is, what matters is being part of the group and progressively getting better (or trying to).

Click the Video Below to Watch My Day in Yoyogi

So while most guidebooks will tell you to come and witness “crazy” Japanese society, I’d challenge you to come and witness “normal” Japanese society. Sunday is a time for groups to gather, for creativity to be let loose, and for people to polish their stones with a singular conviction. It doesn’t matter if it’s a dancing elf, a cross-dressing little bow peep, or a juggler. They are all welcome in Yoyogi, they are all involved in the same cultural experiment, just expressed differently at times.

Once your done in Yoyogi don’t forget to take a walk around the Meiji Jingu grounds for a more subdued expression of Japanese culture. Once you are calm you’ll be ready to shop for the crazy costumes in Harajuku’s back streets and especially along the always crowded Takeshita Street, just across the street from the train station.

What do you think? Are the Japanese youth in Yoyogi creative or conformists? Is this a must see for a visitor to Tokyo?

Experience Tokyo’s Creative Youth Culture in Yoyogi Park is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Drinking in the Back Alleys of Shinjuku Golden Gai http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/07/drinking-in-the-back-alleys-of-shinjuku-golden-gai.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/07/drinking-in-the-back-alleys-of-shinjuku-golden-gai.html#comments Mon, 25 Jul 2011 09:18:42 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=950 Read full article...

Drinking in the Back Alleys of Shinjuku Golden Gai is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Just about every visitor to Japan searches for that stereotypical traditional atmosphere where they can sit and breath in the “real” Japan. The truth is that this “real” Japan is fading fast, and has been relegated to the shadows and corners of mainstream Japan. One place that still pulses with the traditional back alley street culture can be founded tucked into a corner of Shinjuku Tokyo’s red light district, Kabuki-cho.

Drinking in Golden Gai

Golden Gai in Shijuku TokyoGolden Gai is a small city block east of Shinjuku station made up of over 200 shacks, formerly brothels. The area consists of just 6 narrow alleys with even smaller passageways connecting everything. This atmospheric drinking area is renowned for the artists, actors and directors that frequent each nomiya (bar). Each small bar is big enough to fit a counter, stools and between six and fifteen patrons. The seedy image of Kabukicho, with its strip clubs, massage parlors, and breast bars (yes, you can suck on the breasts of waitresses and try not to think about the last guy doing the same) keeps all but the most knowledgeable/adventurous visitor from discovering this oasis of small town Japan in the heart of one of the world’s largest metropolises. Each bar typically has a theme and caters to a slightly different crowd with the dimly lit streets and shanty-like building preserving one of the last areas of Tokyo not to be redeveloped.

In fact, despite a career of living in and passing through many of the seedier places on earth, I had yet to fully explore Golden Gai, assuming it was dangerous and controlled by the Yakuza. It turns out it’s anything but dangerous, but still has a grit to it that ensures you’ll walk away with a memorable night.

Finding the Right Fit in Golden Gai

Finding the right bar can be challenging in the labyrinth like streets but is also part of the fun as you try to find the right atmosphere for you. My friends and I found our way to a typical bar with a Portuguese theme. Each time a patron made a move towards the restroom everyone had to stand and press against the bar counter. Portuguese Port (where else could it be from) was the house specialty, along with three cute bartenders who just managed to fit behind the bar together, ready to keep the conversations going and the single customers engaged and feeling welcome.

Small bar in Shinjuku's Golden GaiThe bartender closest to me started working in the area a few months ago, moonlighting after her regular job as a theater actress for historical dramas ended. She figured she got around 3 hours of sleep a night and saw her French boyfriend even less. Next to me sat an architect who taught at a famous University nearby, next to him a women half his age hung on his elbow. Down the bar one man was too drunk to engage in conversation and the next was a political correspondent for Japan’s national news service NHK.

As three young Australian’s entered the bartender leaned close and said more and more tourists were stopping by as the area became fashionable in guidebooks and as the area cleaned up its seedy image. I guess I wasn’t a tourist as we were speaking Japanese ;)

Golden Gai Etiquette

Most bars are welcoming to visitors and happy for you to share their night. However, remember that many of these bars are filled every night with regular customers and taking their seats can cause a bit of an issue. Bartenders are generally good about letting you know if you are welcome or not. Just ask if it’s OK to sit down when you first enter. If they say no, don’t take offense or think it’s because your a foreigner. Most likely the seats left are for regulars. Say thank you and move on down the street, with 200 holes in the wall you’ll find someplace to call home for the evening.

The Curse of a Popular Traditional Area

It’s difficult to know exactly what Golden Gai is any longer. It is a remnant of a bygone era, the playground of the rich and famous, a bohemian wonderland in a stifling city, or a tourist cliche recommended by every guidebook and their grandmother. Yes, I realize the irony of posting this article!

The truth is bound to be different for everyone, on a different night in the Gai, and upon stumbling into different bars. Golden Gai sums up the Japanese experience better than just about anywhere else. It is a place with enough personalities to be different for each visitor, allowing you to interact superficially or to find a home amongst those of similar hearts. If you want to get pissed and walk away with a story, that’s fine too, the bars are happy to take your seating charge (usually between 800-1,000 yen).

Whatever Golden Gai is or isn’t, it is definitely unique. It’s a place that you should walk into with an open mind and not in search of the exact atmosphere, story, or experience related in a guidebook or travel blog. It’s one of those amazing places where the story writes itself and all you need to do is keep flipping the pages (buy more drinks).

Map How to Get To Golden Gai:

The entire Golden Gai is situated on one block just 5 minutes walk from Shinjuku East Exit-  1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku


View Shinjuku’s Golden Gai Drinking Area in a larger map

Do you have a favorite place to drink in Tokyo? Share it with us in the comments below.

Drinking in the Back Alleys of Shinjuku Golden Gai is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Guide to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/07/guide-to-unesco-world-heritage-sites-in-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/07/guide-to-unesco-world-heritage-sites-in-japan.html#comments Mon, 04 Jul 2011 09:55:19 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=919 Read full article...

Guide to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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In Japan, UNESCO World Heritage Sites are extremely popular and there is even a weekly travel show dedicated to showcasing sites from all over the world. The United Nation’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) aims (among an incredibly long list of other duties) to designate and help to protect cultural or natural sites that show “outstanding universal value.” “Sekai isan” or World Heritage Sites, are so popular that Japanese tour companies do a steady business developing mass tours all around the world as well as within Japan itself.

While many people of heard about World Heritage Sites, I was shocked to discover while researching for this article that despite the large sums of money invested to win World Heritage status, and then the vasts amounts of sums needed to protect and maintain those sites (with of course some funds made available from UNESCO) that there is very little interest on the internet for Heritage Sites in Japan.

As little as 170 people per month, GLOBALLY,  actively search for information in English on Japan’s World Heritage Sites. While the marketing value of making the list seems to be quite high, there does not seem to be a subsequent push by the ordinary tourist to find information on them over the internet. Compare this low search level with “Japan Sex” which comes in at 201,000/month and you see what the heritage of the world is up against. Yes, I somehow was able to weave “sex” into a World Heritage post ;)

Despite the lack of knowledge on World Heritage Sites, Japan is filled with them (relative to other countries) and boasts some impressive and incredibly preserved sites.

Travel to Japan’s World Heritage Sites

If you are planning a visit to Japan, you can hardly go wrong by including a few of Japan’s 16 World Heritage Sites in your itinerary. To help you out, and because I know you are not going to search for them on your own, here they are. I have been to over half of these and can’t wait to visit the rest. They are grouped by region starting north to south and include the 2 new additions that were just added in June 2011!

Cultural UNESCO Sites

Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land

Winter at Chuson-ji Temple JapanNew to the list in 2011, Hiraizumi, in Iwate Prefecture boasts a long history of beautiful temples that rivaled the size of Kyoto back in the 12th Century. The area comprises five sites, including the sacred Mount Kinkeisan. The sites boast the remnants of  government offices dating from the 11th and 12th centuries when Hiraizumi was the administrative center of the northern realm of Japan. The realm was based on the cosmology of Pure Land Buddhism, which spread to Japan in the 8th century. It represented the pure land of Buddha that people aspire to after death, a type of enlightened realm. The highlights of the area include Chuson-ji Temple, with its spectacular Konjikido golden hall, Motsu-ji Temple, and the former garden of Kanjizaio-in Temple which is representative of a combination of indigenous Japanese nature worship and Shintoism and Pure Land Buddhism that developed a type of garden design unique to Japan.

Shrines and Temples of Nikko

Changing leaves in Nikko JapanThe shrines and temples of Nikko have long been associated with the wealth and power of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and together with the beautiful surrounding nature illustrate the architectural style of the Edo period. The mountains of Nikko were first worshiped as a sacred Shinto area and in the 8th century the first Buddhist building was built. The area highlights the unique nature of Japanese religious centers blending nature worship with adapted Buddhist principles. One of the main highlights is Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu’s grand, elaborately (gaudy?) decorated mausoleum – the Toshogu – that was built in the mid 17th century. Watch out for the monkeys that are known to terrorize the town and the visitors alike.

Historic Villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama

Autumn colors at Shirakawa-go in JapanLocated in a mountainous regions in Gifu Prefecture (Shirakawa-go) and Toyama Prefecture (Gokayama) are cut off from the rest of Japan. These villages have Gassho-style houses with their steeply pitched thatched roofs that were designed to protect from the massive amounts of snow dumped on the area each winter by moisture extending from the Sea of Japan and are the only examples of their kind in Japan. The resident lived off of the cultivation of mulberry trees and the rearing of silkworms. It is difficult to find a more rural traditional lifestyle in Japan.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities)

Yes, this is three cities in one and the monuments are shared between Kyoto Prefecture and my former home Shiga Prefecture. With so many amazing historical temples and shrines in the area it would have been impossible to grant them all UNESCO status individually. If you manage to hit all of these temples and shrines then you are way ahead of the most tourists who spend a few days seeing just a few of these sites. The full list includes:

  • Kinkakuji Golden Temple in winterKamigamo Shrine (Kamowakeikazuchi-jinja)
  • Shimogamo Shrine (Kamomioya-jinja)
  • To-ji Temple (Kyouougokoku-ji), Minami-ku Kyoto-city
  • Kiyomizu Temple (Kiyomizu-dera)
  • Enryaku-ji Temple, Otsu-city
  • Daigo-ji Temple, Fushimi-ku Kyoto-city
  • Ninna-ji Temple, Ukyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Byodoin Temple, Uji-city
  • Ujigami-jinja Shrine, Uji-city
  • Kozan-ji Temple, Ukyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Saiho-ji Temple, Sakyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Tenryu-ji Temple, Ukyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Kinkaku-ji Temple (Rokuon-ji), Kita-ku Kyoto-city
  • Ginkaku-ji Temple (Jisho-ji), Sakyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Ryouan-ji Temple, Ukyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Hongan-ji Temple, Shimogyo-ku Kyoto-city
  • Nijojo Castle, Kyoto-city

And yes, I have been to them all!!!

Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area, Nara Prefecture

Horyu-ji Temple in NaraWith around 48 Buddhist monuments in the Horyu-ji area, in Nara Prefecture, you could spend a whole day taking photographs. A number of them date from the late 7th or early 8th century, including the Hyoru-ji gate, main hall and pagoda, making them the oldest surviving wooden buildings in the world. These masterpieces of wooden architecture illustrate the adaptation of Chinese Buddhist architecture and layout to Japanese culture, as well as the with the introduction of Buddhism to Japan from China through the Korean peninsula.

Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara

todaiji great BuddhaLike Kyoto, there are so many sites in Ancient Nara that one can spend a few days trying to discover all of the UNESCO sites. Japan’s capital from 710-784, it is a classic site that every visitor should see. Stop to pet the free roaming deer located throughout the city and the park, visit Todai-ji the world’s largest wooden building housing Japan’s largest statue of the Buddha, or marvel at Kofuku-ji’s 5 story pagoda. Don’t forget to walk along the paths in the surrounding hills and discover centuries of stone statues and Buddhist symbols.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range

Set in the remote and dense forests of the Kii Mountains three ancient sacred sites- Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and Koyasan, reflect the inter-linkages between the native nature based worship of Shinto, and Buddhism which arrived from China and Korea. The sites are linked to the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto along pilgrimage routes that are still used today for hiking and ascetic disciple. The natural landscapes and the sites themselves have a long and well documented tradition of use and pilgrimage for over 1,200 years. The rugged mountains raising from 1,000-2,000 meters and the natural beauty of the area, which was once thought to have been the origin of the Japanese Shinto Gods, are still visited by millions of people each year. Each of the sites are worth a visit but are spread out quite a bit. Koyasan is the headquarters of Shingon Buddhism, a form of esoteric Buddhism and its founder Kobodaishi is one of the great Japanese historical figures. He is also the founder of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.

Kumano Sanzan on Kii Peninsula in Japan

Approaching a small Shinto Shrine in the Kii Mountains

Yoshino and Omine is the northern-most site near to Nara. The Yoshino or northern part of the site was the most important sacred mountain in Japan by the 10th century and was the object of mountain worship, Shinto, in the 7th and 8th centuries. Later in the 8th century it became one of the prime sacred places for the Shugen sect of ascetic Buddhism, and the Omine in the southern part of the site was also known for its harsh mountain ascetic rituals and particular fusion of Shinto and Buddhism.

Kumano Sanzan is the furthest south and has three main shrines, and two temples, connected by a pilgrims’ route. The site also reflects the Shinto and Shugen sect of Shinto-Buddhism and the wooden architecture is considered some of the best in Japan.

Himeji-jo

Himeji Castle JapanThis is possibly Japan’s best preserved and most beautiful castle. The castle site includes 83 buildings with highly developed systems of defense and and creative means of protection dating from the beginning of the Shogun period. The original castle was built in the 14th century and the existing castle was built by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in 1580. It was further enlarged 30 years later by Ikeda Terumasa. This is one of those sites that is a must see for any visitor to Japan.

Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine and its Cultural Landscape

Inside Iwami Ginzan Silver MineThe Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Shimane Prefecture in the south east of Japan’s main island, Honshu, is a mountainous area reaching 600 meters cut through by deep river valleys featuring the archaeological remains of large-scale mines, smelting and refining sites and mining settlements worked between the 16th and 20th centuries. The mines produced most of silver and gold in south-east Asia in the 16th and 17th centuries with shipping routes to China and the Korean peninsula. The site includes fortresses, a number of temples that catered to the short life expectancy of silver miners of the time, and three port towns Tomogaura, Okidomari and Yunotsu, from where the ore was shipped.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome)

Hiroshima Genbaku DomeThis used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall, but after being at the hypocenter of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in 1945 the partially standing remains are now a reminder of the world’s first atomic attack. It was the only building in the area to survive the blast and has been kept in its original state by the city of Hiroshima. Each year on August 6th, services are held at the dome in remembrance and a moment of silence is observed. The Dome stands opposite of the Peace Memorial Park.

Itsukushima Shinto Shrine

Miyajima and Itsukushima ShrineThe island of Itsukushima, in the Seto inland sea, has been a sacred place for Shintoism since the earliest times. The shrines main torii gates, better know as the “floating shrine,” rises out of the the ocean during high tide and is one of the enduring images of Japan. The first shrine buildings were around the 6th century with the present shrine being erected in the 12th century. The shrine plays on the contrasts in color and form between mountains and sea and is a remarkable illustration of Japan’s sense of beauty which highlights the balance between nature and humans.

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, Okinawa Prefecture

View from the walls of Shuri Castle OkinawaThe Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa served as the economic and cultural hub between Japan, China, Korea and the rest of south-east Asia for several centuries. The area is dotted with fortresses and castles with the main attraction being Shuri-jo a castle with a particularly Chinese flavor to it. The castle was the seat of power in the area from the 15th century to 1879 when Okinawa was taken under full control by the Japanese government. Unfortunately the castle was almost fully destroyed during WWII and the current building is a reconstruction.

Natural UNESCO Sites

Shiretoko

Shiretoko Hokkaido's Oshinkoshin WaterfallIf Hokkaido is often refereed to as the most American area in Japan with it’s wide open spaces then Shiretoko must be the Alaska of Japan.The Shiretoko Peninsula in north eastern Hokkaido is a remote, untouched wilderness accessible only by boat or a long trekking expedition. The Peninsula is 65 km long and 25 km wide, houses a number of rare plant and animal life and is home to the world’s highest number of brown bears. The site is globally important for threatened seabirds and migratory birds and for marine mammals including Steller’s sea lion. Good luck getting there!

Shirakami-Sanchi

Lake in Shirakami Beech ForestLocated in Akita Prefecture in northern Honshu the area consists mainly of virgin Siebold’s beech forests that once spread all over Northern Japan. Black bears inhabit the area and a traditional faith ceremony and traditional bear hunting still takes place from time to time. The beech forest is almost entirely undisturbed with few access trails or man-made facilities. There is occasional use by bear hunters but in general the area is protected and has a buffer zone around it.

Ogasawara Islands

Ogasawara Isands JapanOne of two new Heritage sites listed in 2011 the beautiful topical islands of Ogasawara are technically a part of Tokyo but are located over 1,000 km to the south and consist of over 30 islands. Often call the Galapagos of Asia the islands have never physically been attached to any other part of Japan leaving the flora and fauna millions of the years to evolve into distinct species, including the Bonin Flying Fox. About 2,500 residents live on the islands which can only be reach by a 25 1/2 hour ferry ride from Tokyo. The surrounding ocean is home to an abundance of sea life and is an ideal place to watch Humpback and Sperm whales.

Yakushima

Yakushima Island JapanThis island located just to the South of Kyushu, Japan’s southern most main island, is a wonderland of ancient cedar trees and an abundance of plant species with over 1,900 recorded. The massive Yaku-sugi, are endemic to the island transforming the island into enchanting land. Combined with the monkeys, and sparking blue waters around the island it is impossible not feel in awe of the natural wonders.

If you want to find out more detailed information on any of the above sites you can visit the UNESCO page for Japan.

What do you think? Are World Heritage Sites a must when you visit Japan, or are there better ways to spend your time?

This post is a part of the J-Festa July blog carnival. To join in check out the guidelines.

Photo Credits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16


Guide to UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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My Karate Kid Moment: Bar Fight in Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/05/my-karate-kid-moment-bar-fight-in-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/05/my-karate-kid-moment-bar-fight-in-japan.html#comments Mon, 09 May 2011 05:28:49 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=890 Read full article...

My Karate Kid Moment: Bar Fight in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Karate in Japan

Ok, so this is not the exact photo of that night :)

Three to one. Three soldiers, to me. An ex-girlfriend on my arm, scared. How did I get myself into this situation? More importantly, how did I get myself out of it?

When we are kids we all have dreams of being the karate kid. No, not being lanky and whiny (I didn’t have to dream about that part), but being the guy who fights the bullies in the bar…and wins of course. In the summer of 2002 I had my own karate kid moment in Tokyo, Japan. I know, a very cool setting for the story.

Yes, it seems I jumped straight to Part 2 rather than training on the beach in California with a small Japanese guy who can act really really well. Despite not being in Okinawa, I still managed to find a group of US Soldiers. Note, I really respect all US military personnel and thank you from the bottom of my heart. Although, sometimes a few jerks slip through the recruiters ;)

The Break Up

Fresh off of a break up, I decided I needed a night on the town. My relationship was one of those overly complicated emotional roller coasters where the girl’s ideal ending of the relationship was mutual suicide. Yeah…I really need to blow off some steam, especially after our last talk, “I think we want different things. I’m not ready to get married.”

“I never wanted to get married. I just want to be with you for the rest of my life.” We had been dating for 2 months. The water was boiling, the steam whistled, it was time to take the pot off the stove.

A Night on the Town in Tokyo

Tokyo Dance Club

Dance Dance Revolution!

In Tokyo the options are endless, so I gathered a group of friends and we hit the clubs in Roppongi with the aim to drink and dance the frustration out. Clubs in Tokyo rage all night and after bar hopping in some seedy, sweaty, overly packed clubs in Roppongi we headed down the hill to the more refined, upmarket area of Azabu Juban to find a club where we could dance until the first trains started at the crack of dawn.

It was 1 am and this was our last stop for the night, a dark, smoky sweaty club filled with well dressed 20 somethings. Past 2 am there was no getting back in, you stayed until you were forced to greet the morning sun. We wove our way through the crowds, grabbing shots and beer along the way until we hit the dance floor, beads of sweat flying to the beat of underground Japanese house music. The bass beat deep into our souls, it cleared our minds just as the booze erased the past. Only now existed. The beat, the rhythm, the…why was she staring at me? Through the haze I could see a girl at the bar, looking at me with an intensity you don’t ignore when you’re drunk and looking to forget the world.

Reality is a Bitch

I staggered over, preparing my first clever remark (“hello”) and…smack….I walked right into a wall. The wall of reality. I could now see the girl closely and who was it but my ex-girlfriend. Thirty three fucking million people in Tokyo, 23 city Wards, and thousands of bars and we choose the same one. I don’t want to bore you with the details of our conversation. You know how they go. We rehash the break up, she cries. We rehash why we can’t be together, she cries. I try to be polite but firm, I cry. She tries to emotionally black mail me. Good times.

We are sitting on stools, facing each other when suddenly three heavily muscled white guys, heads shaved, walk up. All were wearing t-shirts that were 3 sizes to small. Maybe they were better at working out than shopping. The leader takes her hand kisses it and says, “You’re the most beautiful girl I have ever seen.” He turns to me “you get the fuck out of here.” He turns back to her. She turns to me with frightened eyes.

Beat the War Drums

Amazingly, as if out of a movie, his two buddies stand behind him staring threateningly at me, cracking their knuckles. I tried not to laugh. The pressure was building and if I couldn’t dance to blow it off then how about a good fight? I was pretty sure I could take 2 of the cocky soldiers, but the third might have been a problem. What to do? My ex was looking scared, and she had no idea what was going on. Time to man up.

“Where are you from?”

“Fuck you. Get out of here before I kill you.” Cracking knuckles danced to the bass pulsing from the dance floor.

He tried to turn back to her. I kept his attention and his lips away from her hand. “Look, I’m here with her.” I kept my voice low and polite, he kept his loud.

“We’re going to beat the shit out of you if you don’t get the fuck out of here.” Why was he talking so slow? “We’re fucking in the army and you’re fucking nothing.”

I turned to face him further. He stepped closer to me. His buddies stepped up. I stayed seated. “If you don’t stop swearing in front of my friend you’ll have to leave.” Calm, controlled. I shouldn’t have been, but I was.

How you Beat 3 Guys at Once

“Yeah, fuck you! What the fuck are you going to do about it.” He released her hand. That’s what I had been waiting for. I raised my hand slowly, high over my head, and extended two fingers. Did I mention I know, Karate, Aikido and few other arts? No? Well, here we go. I extended my index and middle finger and…made a “come here motion.” The boys seemed confused.

Within seconds five extremely large Japanese bouncers descended on the group, wrapping the soldiers up in tight grips. “Throw them out,” I said in polite but firm Japanese.

From the corner of my eye I had seen the bouncers getting more and more tense during the conversation. Three in morning and the guys would never find anywhere else that would let them in. They would be stuck on the streets until the first trains started.

The bounces started dragging the guys out when the leader lunged for me. He got low and began to plead. “I’m sorry. I”m sorry. We were just joking man. It’s cool, we’re sorry.”

“Fuck you.” They got hauled out of the club. My heart pounded to the rhythm of the music. The club gyrated along oblivious to our drama. A bouncer returned with two warm yellow towels for us to clean our hands, to help wipe away the distastefulness of the situation and the unwanted kiss.

Moral of the Story…Nah, It’s Just a Good Story

The girl and I didn’t work out, but that’s no surprise. But I had my Karate Kid Moment. I like to think that Mr. Miyagi would be proud that I didn’t resort to fighting. “Todo-san, you have strooong Karate.” Sometimes you don’t have a choice but to fight, but in most instances there is always a safer way out.

Stay tuned for more alcohol induced judgement impaired situations in future posts. Like how I found myself in a penthouse with the head of Sri Lanka’s mafia and an empty bottle of scotch, and a sleepy Chinese prostitute. But that’s another story…

Have you ever felt unsafe while traveling? How did you handle it?

Photo Credit 1, 2

My Karate Kid Moment: Bar Fight in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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The Statues of Mt Takao http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/the-statues-of-mt-takao.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/the-statues-of-mt-takao.html#comments Mon, 25 Apr 2011 06:01:03 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=879 Read full article...

The Statues of Mt Takao is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Recently I wrote about a beautiful hike up Mount Takao in Tokyo. Two of the amazing features of the hike are the Buddhist temple and Shinto shrines along the way. In fact one of the wonderful things about Japan in general is the large number of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines that dot the country along with the hundreds of thousands of statues that live along road sides, in little houses, and in just about every nook and cranny you can think of.

The hike up to Mt. Takao is filled with religious and everyday statues. The forest is packed with them, either reminding you of Buddhist precepts, celebrating a piece of nature like a waterfall or a large tree, or just being cute and adding to the neighborhood character. A lot of people have written to me since my last post asking for more pictures of the hike. As I like to make people happy, here is a slideshow of the Statues of Mt. Takao. I hope you enjoy.

If you liked the video, let us know below in the comments, or feel free to share it with a friend.

The Statues of Mt Takao is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Hiking in Tokyo- Mount Takao http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/hiking-in-tokyo-mount-takao.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/hiking-in-tokyo-mount-takao.html#comments Mon, 11 Apr 2011 05:16:58 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=867 Read full article...

Hiking in Tokyo- Mount Takao is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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tengu statue on takaosan in Tokyo

Long nose, check, wings, check, stern face, check...gotta love those tengu

I bet you didn’t know you could hike in Tokyo! I bet you didn’t know you could hike with mountain gods (well ok they are minor mountain kami)! Most people only see the hip (or crazy) fashion of Harajuku, the stately Emperor’s Palace and the blinding neon signs of Shinjuku at night when they think about Tokyo. Packed trains ferrying 10 million people in and out the city each day, name brand department stores, and tourist swamped temples either excite a visitor or make them run screaming away from Tokyo. But there are more things to do in Tokyo than meets the eye and the visitor or resident can have both the packed cultural experience of the world’s largest city and a nice day of hiking out in the mountains.

winding path up takaosan in Tokyo Japan

This is the Biwa path that runs up a stream to the summit

Just 2 days before the earthquake and tsunami struck Japan I was enjoying views of Mount Fuji from the top of the heavily wooded Mount Takao, one of the closest nature escapes to Tokyo. Located in the “city” of Hachijoji it is still within the metropolitan borders of Tokyo and lies a mere 50 km from the center of the city. That’s nothing when you take into account Japan’s fantastic train system. Fifty minutes and just 370 yen later and you can get from Shinjuku to the foot of the hiking trail.

Mount Takao has a network of well marked hiking trails, a beautiful old Buddhist temple, the top is one of the 100 famous views of Mt Fuji, and if you want to hike further the trails go deeper into the Meji Memorial National Park. Commonly referred to as Takao-san, the area is considered sacred and has been the focus of mountain ascetic worship for over 1,000 years.

Temple gate leading to Yakuoin Temple on Mt Takaosan

Come in the evening and the lanterns are lit up

Half way up the mountain sits the Buddhist Temple Takaosan Yakuōin Yūkiji one of the most beautiful in the area with its multiple levels and bright painting reminiscent of Chinese temples and those of Nikko further to the north. Visitors pray to the Shinto-Buddhist mountain gods, the tengu, who are former men who transformed themselves through ascetic practice which embodies the yamabushi (mountain ascetics). Statues of Buddhist arhats, and long nosed tengu with crow beaks, dot the mountain paths and add to the feeling of sacredness of the area.

buddhist statues in Japan on Takaosan

88 statues line the temple. Leave 1 yen at each to make you prayer come true

There are six different main tails leading to the top of the mountain, as well as a cable car for those who just can’t manage to pull themselves up the 600 meter hike. Yes, that is not a lot! I recommend taking the paved routed number 1 up the mountain to make sure you don’t miss Takuoin and then take either the Biwa path (hike 6) down along a small river or the ridge line Inariyama Trail along beautiful narrow dirt and rocky paths. Round trip the hike won’t take longer than 3 hours.

tengu statues on mt takaosan in tokyo Japan

Come to Takao...Come to Takao...

Don’t forget to pack a small lunch to eat at the top. Like most hikes in Japan there are vending machines at the top so treat yourself to the view with nice local beer and admire the views out to Mt. Fuji. And no, you don’t get a picture of Mt. Fuji! I have to leave something for you to discover on your own.

Blog for Japan help Japan recover from the tsunamiThis post is part of the continuing Blog4Japan campaign to raise awareness for the need for donations to local organizations helping the survivors. If you would like to help please consider donating to this list of local Japanese organizations that are on the ground working right now.

Do you have  good day hike inside of Tokyo? Let us know below. Who am I kidding, if you have ANYTHING to say leave it below :)

Hiking in Tokyo- Mount Takao is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Cherry Blossom Viewing in Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/cherry-blossom-veiwing-in-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/04/cherry-blossom-veiwing-in-japan.html#comments Mon, 04 Apr 2011 05:42:01 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=854 Read full article...

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Blog for Japan help Japan recover from the tsunamiThis post is part of the Blog4Japan campaign helping to raise donations for the survivors of the earthquake and tsunami. Please share it and considering donating to one of the worthy local Japanese organizations responding to the disaster.

This year will mark a different type of cherry blossom season. Usually each year as these transient beauties reveal themselves to the country the Japanese gather together with friends, family, and coworkers and party under the blossoms in a custom called hanami. It is by far my favorite activity in Japan, eating delicious food and drinking into the wee hours of the night celebrating life and beauty that we all know will fade shortly after. In fact it’s the short time period that makes us appreciate the beauty all the more.

In the wake of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and Tsunami the cherry blossom parties will be understandably subdued. But I also think that they cheery blossoms offer us a time to reflect on life, the tsunami and what is important to us and how we can help. As the cherry blossoms are just opening around the country here are my favorite viewing places in Tokyo and Kyoto. If you are nearby I urge you to go and still celebrate life and beauty. If your planning to take a trip to Japan, I urge you to keep to your schedule and see for yourself all the beauty Japan has to offer.

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Tokyo

Walking through the Cherry Blossoms in Ueno Park Tokyo Japan

Ueno Park during cherry blossom season

There are three main areas of Tokyo that I’d recommend viewing the cherry blossoms. The first is Ueno Park, perhaps Tokyo’s most well known cherry blossom destination and thus the most crowded. If you are looking to avoid the crowds this is certainly not the place to be. But if you want it lively, and filled with music, families and temples within walking distance than Ueno is the place to be.

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Shinjuku Japan

Shinjuku Gyoen

Our next stop is Shinjuku Gyoen (park) where the vast variety of cherry trees helps to ensure blossoms opening throughout the season. The large open areas ensure spots for those wanting to picnic. However, there are not that may spaces underneath the trees themselves. One tree not to miss is the beautiful weeping cherry tree, Yaebeni Shidarezakura.

Our last top is the Sumida Park which is a nice cherry tree lined walkway along the Sumida River in Asakusa, home to famous Senso-ji Temple. This is a nice relaxing area where you can stroll under the cherry blossoms. It is less crowded than Ueno but still has a nice historical feel to it. Across the river is the Asahi Beer company with its curious golden monument on top of the building. You can also see the ongoing construction to Tokyo’s latest and tallest broadcasting, restaurant and viewing tower the Tokyo Sky Tree.

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Kyoto

It is hard to improve on the beauty and elegance of Kyoto. But when the cheery blossoms appear in the Spring and when the leaves change in the Fall the city comes alive even further wrapped in natural colors that only accentuate the traditional buildings and quietly manicured gardens. Kyoto is full of cherry trees but here are some of my favorite areas.

Cherry blossom viewing in Maruyama park Kyoto

Old Cherry Tree in Maruyama Park

No cherry blossom experience is complete in Kyoto without a visit to Maruyama Park, and its stately old weeping cherry tree that is lit up at night. This is a popular place so if you are planning on having an evening party here you best stake out a spot early in the morning. Companies usually send their junior employees to claim their spot early. Sitting in the park all days sounds like a nice day of work! You can access the area through Yasaka Shrine, which sits at the eastern end of Shijo-dori in the Gion District.

If you are looking to contemplate life during a stroll than the Philosophers Path (哲学の道, Tetsugaku no michi) should be your next stop on your cherry blossom viewing odyssey. This cherry tree lined stone path in the northern section of Higashiyama area is quiet and is a good place to beat the crowds. However, space for picnicking is limited so it’s best for a stroll or to incorporate as part of your walking tour through the area.

Cherry blossom viewing along the philosophers path in Kyoto

Get your inner philosopher a kick start with a little beauty to contemplate

Finally, get a bird’s eye view of the city and the forest of cherry blossom trees surrounding Kiyomizu Temple. Besides the temple being one of Kyoto’s most beautiful and most famous, it has an incredible wooden deck that trusts outs into a sea of blossoms. This spot will be one of your photographic highlights so make sure you head later in the day when you have nice soft light.

Have you been on a hanmi? Where else would you recommend for viewing the cherry blossoms?

Photo Credits 1, 2, 3, 4

Cherry Blossom Viewing in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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How to Help Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Survivors by giving to Japanese Organizations http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/how-to-help-japan-earthquake-tsunami-survivors.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/how-to-help-japan-earthquake-tsunami-survivors.html#comments Mon, 21 Mar 2011 19:52:35 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=827 Read full article...

How to Help Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Survivors by giving to Japanese Organizations is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Japanese Tsunami sweeps cars and houses away

We watched the horror unfold live on the television after the quake

This page is dedicated to helping the survivors of the Friday 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan by channeling international donations to local efforts.

The earthquake and tsunami have caused extensive and severe damage in Northeastern Japan, over 9,500 people have been confirmed dead and another 16,000 are missing, and millions more affected by lack of electricity, water and transportation.

The images of the destruction and suffering have shocked the world. However, with the World Bank reporting over 300 billion USD in damages and families torn apart there is a need for everyone to help both financially and emotionally.

A few weeks ago I posted about my Experience During the Japan Earthquake and made a plea to my readers to spread the word about helping Japan recover. My wife is from Tokyo and we are both professional aid and recovery workers with the United Nations. We have seen the recovery phase of the 2004 Tsunami up close and we know there is a tremendous need to not only raise donations but to make sure those funds are used responsibly and are in the hands of organizations with not only technical expertise but also local knowledge.

How You Can Help

A lot of people around the world want to help and have been donating to various international organizations (mainly the American Red Cross). I think this is great and with the money being transferred to the Japanese Red Cross this money will be used well. However, we also believe there is a need to donate funds directly to local Japanese organizations and NGOs that don’t have access to this type of fund raising. There are also many scams out there trying to benefit from this horrible disaster. We know that language barriers and lack of knowledge can also prevent people from donating to the right place. As such we have put together a list of Japanese Organizations that we know, trust and recommend to channel your donations to.

If you are unable to donate we ask that you Share this Page with your friends, family and coworkers through e-mail, facebook, twitter or any other outlet you can think of. The more people who see this page the greater the donations will be.

If you are blogger, or have your own website. Please see the Blog4Japan page to learn how you can utilize this appeal on your own site and help us reach even more people.

Japanese Organizations We Trust

Please consider donating to one or more of these organizations. All are local Japanese organizations and we have found the English Pages for you. Even a small amount like $10 is useful, but we hope you donate more!

Peace Winds Japan Tsunami Response

Peace Winds Japan is one of the largest Japanese organizations providing humanitarian relief such as food, clothing, fuel and medical supplies to the affected areas. You can Donate Here.

JEN Tsunami ResponseJEN is a well known NGO dedicated to restoring a self-supporting livelihood both economically and mentally to those who have been stricken with hardship due to conflicts and disasters. They are currently supporting emergency relief items such as food, woman’s hygienic items, clothes and other essentials to the survivors of the Japan Tsunami. You can Donate Here.

Save the Children Tsunami recovery in JapanSave the Children has been working in Japan for over 25 years. Their American partner is now collecting donations for them in English (which eliminates any credit card exchange charges. They have set up multiple child-friendly spaces  in evacuation centers in Sendai City where displaced families are staying. They are also starting their  long-term recovery plans to restore education and child care in communities ravaged by the disasters. You can get information on activities and Donate Here.

ADRA Japan Tsunami Response

Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is donating food and essential items to the survivors of the tsunami. They also keep a well maintained English blog of their activities in Japan for the tsunami which you can Follow Here. You can Donate Here.

JOICFP Response to the Japanese TsunamiThe Japan Organization for International Cooperation in Family Planning is taking donations for their response to the tsunami that will focus on the reproductive health needs of women and mothers in affected areas. You can Donate Here.

AMDA Tsunami Response The Association of Medical Doctors of Asia (AMDA Japan) team is delivering essential medical services through mobile clinics and delivering relief goods to the nursing homes and schools (evacuation shelters) in Aoba and Miyagino Wards. You can Donate Here.

Oxfam Japan's Tsunami ResponseOXFAM Japan is working with two partners in Japan on providing support to those on the margins of society who might otherwise have difficulty accessing emergency relief. One group is assisting mothers and babies and the other is providing information to non-Japanese speakers living in Japan. You can Donate Here.

Habitat for Humanity Japan Tsunami ResponseHabitat For Humanity Japan is still assessing the situation but will be involved in the reconstruction of housing once the emergency period ends. This is one of the most vital aspects of recovery and the homeless will need a lot of help to put their lives back together. You can Donate Here.

Institute for Cultural Affairs Tsunami Response

The Institute for Cultural Affairs Japan (ICA) is still assessing the situation but is accepting donations. You can Donate Here.

All of these are worthy organizations to support and  you can match your own personal interests to the organization that you think will work the best on what you want to support. Even if you are unable to donate please pass this on through social media, word of mouth or even in print. I have waived all rights to this post so please feel free to copy and reproduce any part of it for the good of the Japanese people.

If you do want to reproduce this please see the Blog4Japan page where you can find out more details.

Thank you from my family and friends who have been affected by this terrible disaster.

How to Help Japan’s Earthquake and Tsunami Survivors by giving to Japanese Organizations is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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My Experience During the Japan Earthquake http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/my-experience-during-the-japan-earthquake.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/my-experience-during-the-japan-earthquake.html#comments Sun, 13 Mar 2011 18:40:31 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=819 Read full article...

My Experience During the Japan Earthquake is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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The Japanese Earthquake

Japanese Tsunami sweeps cars and houses away

We watched the horror unfold live on the television after the quake

On Friday 11 March 2011 just before 3:00 pm the largest earthquake in Japanese recorded history hit with a magnitude of 9.0. I was in Tokyo at the time visiting my wife’s family. As I sat at the kitchen table, happily posting pictures of Japan on Facebook, the room began to shake. The quake started small, but with a sudden jolt. When the shaking didn’t stop I started to worry as the large cabinet rattled at my back and the light above me began to swing violently.

I moved to the middle of the room, away from anything that could fall on me. The preparation drills tell you to get under a table, put a cushion over your head, and open the door to make sure you have a way out if the house collapses. You are also supposed to shut off the gas to prevent a fire. Too many tasks during a singularly frightening and dangerous moment. All I knew was that I didn’t feel safe in the house with its paper thin walls and ceilings. I knew that that my wife and I needed to get out of the house, but first we had to put on our shoes, a frustrating secondary step when you’re trying to flee a house.

We hit the road outside as the earth shifted beneath our feet, rolling in what felt like waves. Cars were stopped in the road and our neighbors came rushing out to join us. Many crouched low to the ground trying to find some sort of stability as the earth rocked like a ship hit by a torpedo. I tried to find the safest place and realized, in the Tokyo suburban sprawl that houses 33 million people, nowhere was truly safe. Above us the sky was blackened, not by smoke but by a cat’s cradle of swinging electrical lines. Inside, outside, it didn’t matter. Nowhere was really safe.

The quake lasted for almost 3 minutes. That is a very long time when the earth is moving under your feet. The country was hit with aftershocks reaching 7.0 that would have been massive if not compared to the original.

Alarm bells rang, the TV beeped and binged as tsunami warnings flooded the airwaves. In a country used to earthquakes this was something different. Lifetime residents of Tokyo remarked how it was the biggest they had ever felt, and we weren’t even at the center of the quake.

The Tsunami

In Northern Japan, in Iwate and Fukushima Prefectures, the devastation was only just beginning. Soon after the first quake hit, while we sat glued to the T.V., our family gathered together, we watched in horror as a 10 meter tsunami destroyed the East Coast. Cars, buses and ships crashed into each other. Entire towns were swept away, houses ablaze as the tsunami waters flooded rivers and jumped dikes. We watch helplessly as Japanese news helicopters showed us live the wall of water advancing, overtaking unsuspecting people as they fled in their cars.

We sat, we watched, and we shook as more aftershocks hit one after the other.

We were fortunate. Our family and friends were safe, if not all with us due to the complete shutdown of Tokyo’s train system which trapped millions of people in the city. I was to fly out and return to Kosovo on Saturday. I felt helpless having to leave when the need was so great. As an aid worker I spend my life jumping from one crisis to the next. Now I was leaving this crisis and my family behind.

I am writing this from an overburdened Narita Airport on a Sunday, feeling sick to my stomach at leaving my wife behind. As another earthquake hits us in the airport the steady shaking sends a women next to me into a panic and she tries to flee into multiple walls of people, each waiting to get to a check-in counter. Her husband is the only one to leave his line, he gently pulls her back, her face swollen from the frightened sobs that rack her body.

Journey Across Tokyo

Crowded Ueno station in Tokyo after the earthquake

No way into the trainstations in Tokyo

My journey across Tokyo was like a post apocalyptic movie. It took me 8 hours to navigate the labyrinth of closed train lines, bloated stations, and swollen streets. Millions of people waited in patient lines, pressing into stations that had no outlet. People littered the hallways of the city’s underground shopping malls, sleeping, hugging and crying.

Throughout it all I was immensely impressed by the calmness of Japanese crowds, the straightness of the lines and the lack of pushing, shoving and anger that might have affected crowds in any other city in the world. The police funneled people to keep waves of people moving where they could.

When I finally got on a train moving towards the airport (3 train lines later) we were packed in like sardines. Picture Tokyo at rush hour, times 3, plus luggage. Except for the occasional outburst everyone bore the pain and inconvenience with remarkable stoicism during the grueling 3 hour ride. I of course missed my flight, but had my wife and family helping me to rebook as I concentrated on getting closer to the airport.

How you Can Help

Despite the trouble, and the fear of the past day, it was nothing compared to what the people of Northern Japan are going through. My heart goes out to the families of those who died in Tokyo (at the time of writing) and the nearly 1,500 dead in the North. Homes and families have been ripped apart and I’m flying away. While I can’t help physically I can help with my words, with my blog and with my network of development professionals and online publishers.

To this end I am organizing an ongoing Blog for Japan Event that will raise money for the victims of this devastating tsunami. My wife is looking for a worthy Japanese organization that non-Japanese might not know about and may have difficulty donating to.

In the coming weeks we will identify an organization (or a few) and we will promote a donation link through our blogs and online contacts. If you are interested in getting involved writing a blog post, sharing posts with friends, or just donating please sign up to the e-mail contact form below. This will allow me to send an e-mail to you when preparations are set and let you know how you can participate, donate or help pass the message along. This e-mail list will not be shared with anyone and will only be used during this short time to help raise much needed funds for the recovery of Northern Japan.

All of the money we raise will go directly to helping the victims of the quake and tsunami. We will let you know when we have found the appropriate organization(s) to donate to. We would appreciate you sending this story to others who might be interested in helping as well.

Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan at the this trying time.

My Experience During the Japan Earthquake is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Find Love, Good Health, Wealth and High Test Scores in Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/find-love-good-health-wealth-and-high-test-scores-in-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/find-love-good-health-wealth-and-high-test-scores-in-japan.html#comments Wed, 09 Mar 2011 16:05:06 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=810 Read full article...

Find Love, Good Health, Wealth and High Test Scores in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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In the last article we explored the Japanese trend of visiting “Power Spots,” areas where you can gather invisible energy. Whether you believe in Power Spots or not the act of visiting specific places to gain a certain type of benefit is a long held practice in Japan. Temples, shrines and hot springs are the most commonly visited. Natural areas are usually associated with one of them and are where visitors focus their prayers when venturing out into rural Japan.

Much of what people ask for are physical rewards. While I’m not sure praying for wealth is the best use of your time, there are thousands of places all over Japan that cater to physical and spiritual improvements. If you are heading to Japan and you have issues with health, love, and money, need to pass an exam, could use a bit of healing, or just want to get rid of some evil, you might as well try out these spots and see if they really work. Feel free to let us know what happens :)

These are all well established areas which specialize in helping with a variety of subjects. Well, maybe help is not the right word, but they allow you to wish on their property…usually for free. While most of the shrines or temples are popular in their own areas, I have tried to pick non-mainstream spots so you don’t have to suffer through a bland recommendation of Mt. Fuji or the temples in Nara. If they don’t work and you want your money back I suggest visiting the Money Power Spots.

There are many more in Japan and these are but a few examples. Whether they actually work or not, they are worth the visit for their cultural and architectural beauty alone.

Love

Ikuta Shrine Kobe Japan

Hmmm, he seems to be walking away alone

Ikuta Jinja (shrine) in Kobe is the place to be if you are looking to find love. It is also one of the oldest Shrines in Japan at just shy of 2000 years. The Japanese seem to have love on their minds and one Power Spot book I looked at had double the number of Love spots than any other category. The Kami (god) for art was enshrined here in 201 leading to the popularity of the shrine. Write your love wish on the heart shaped ema (wishing boards) and pray for ti to be fulfilled as the god of Art seems to take a romantic view to his duties.

Health

Bungui Toge (pass) in Nagano Prefecture is a patch of forest known for its healing energy. A Chinese “energy specialist” found this place in 1995 and it appears it does not having a magnetic field allowing energy to flow freer here than other places on earth. The lack of magnetic interference has visitors reporting positive effects on their mental and physical health. Of course this could also be from hiking into the words and sitting quietly in the clean air! In fact its is so special there are no pictures of it…

Money

Zenigata Sunae Kagawa Japan

I thought this was a cheesy tourist attraction at first. Turns out its 400 years old.

Shikoku may seem like an odd place to find money as it is the least developed of Japan’s four main islands. But the gigantic sand coin Zenigata Sunae in Kagawa Prefecture has been dishing out money luck since 1633.

It is said the sand sculpture will make you happy and bring you wealth just by looking at it. The local people created it in 1633 when Ikoma Takatoshi, who belonged to the Marugame group, came to visit. Just by looking at it you will have good health, live long and won’t have any problems with money. Sounds like a good deal to me.

Healing

Kuki Jinja (literally Air Shrine) in Yamagata Prefecture is a bit out of the way, and a bit off the crazy mysticism chart, but maybe it has to do with the clean air going to the priests’ heads.

The shrine was established to thank Air. There is no actual shrine here. Instead you are supposed to walk through a monument keeping the image of the five elements that make up the universe, water, fire, earth, wood, and gold in your mind. If you do this then the air shrine will appear to you. There is no gate or roof but a mirrored panel resting on the ground surrounded by woods, and which reflects the sky, trees and people. To pray you bow twice, clap four times and the repeat the seasons (winter, summer, spring, and autumn) in your mind while making specific hand gestures while thanking air and nature.

Work and Study

Fushimi Inari Taisha Kyoto Japan

Get lost in this other worldly experience

Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto would be one of my top suggestions whether you want to pass a test or not. Thousands of red tori gates create a confusing maze through the paths of this hillside that contains over 30,000 shrines. Stay into the evening and you are guaranteed to find a bit of spirituality as you get lost amongst the fox gods. If you are looking to pass a test or do better at work don’t forget to throw some coins in front of the many shrines.

Banish Evil

Narita San Shinsho-ji JapanIf you are on an emergency visit to Japan to get rid of some evil your best bet is the enormous Narita San, Shinsho-ji temple just a short train ride from the Narita Airport. Founded in 940 by Kanchō Daisōjō, a disciple of the famous Kobo Daishi, and is dedicated to Fudomyoo, a deity of the fire, who is believed to drive out evil spirits. Just be careful, the temple attracts over 10 million visitors a year, that’s a lot of evil floating around waiting to be expelled.

Getting there and Away

All of these spots are spread out all over Japan. If you are serious about visiting them first find flights to Japan. After that your best bet is to buy a Japan Rail Pass that will allow you to ride the bullet trains for a set period of time allowing your zip around the country in no time. The pass also lets you ride on local trains (then only kinds that reach these remotes areas).

What do you think? Is it better to find love at the temple or the bar?

Photo Credit 1, 2, 3, 4

Find Love, Good Health, Wealth and High Test Scores in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Power Spots: Japanese Spiritual and Travel Craze http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/power-spots-japanese-travel-spiritual-craze.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/03/power-spots-japanese-travel-spiritual-craze.html#comments Mon, 07 Mar 2011 01:00:58 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=807 Read full article...

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Hiking Mt Fuji Japan

Hiking above the clouds for sunrise on Mt Fuji

Gain Energy, Luck and Happiness through Travel to Power Spots

Want to get married, become rich, get rid of a little evil, or do away with that ugly wart? It’s as simple as visiting a Power Spot. One the biggest trends in Japan last year was the rise of Power Spots, and any type of travel associated with them. Power Spots are supposedly any place where you can receive invisible energy that can help you achieve all your life’s dreams, whether they be material or spiritual. This is of course not a new concept in Japan, as the Japanese have ascribed specific powers to temples and shrines for thousands of years. Shinto beliefs also stress a spiritual aspect to nature,  inhabited by millions of gods.

What is new is the packaging of all such Power Spots into one large mixture of your favorite spiritual energy dogmas. A little Feng Shui here, a dash of Qigong there, a handful of Shinto and a healthy does of eccentric hazy Japanese mysticism that has a long, if somewhat hidden history in Japan.

Power Spot Craze

Book shelves groan from the weight of Power Spot guide books (volumes 1-10 of course) and every travel agent I pass is selling Power Spot tours to Petra, the Grand Canyon and Machu Pichu. There are Yama Girl Clubs (women hikers) who gather to hike into the remote areas most Power Spots can be found, such as Mount Fuji, Mount Osore in Aomori, the high mountains in Wakayama and Nara, and countless other places. Judging by the popularity of the craze, Japanese tour companies must have visited all the Power Spots associated with wealth and prosperity.

Of course, I am not as cynical as I may sound. Most people don’t know that I have a spiritual side, and I’m a huge fan of deriving spiritual value from a combination of nature and symbolism. In fact this passion led me to walk the Shikoku Pilgrimage. While the idea of “gathering energy” at Power Spots, first proposed by a self -proclaimed psychic named Kiyota Masuaki, sounds a bit far fetched I have to admit I like the idea. I also have to say up front that I believe in this type of energy, partly from my own meditation but also through my practice of Aikido.

Deeper Understanding Of Power Spots

According to one Power Spot guidebook author, Power Spots are like the world’s acupuncture points where the energy flows close to the surface. To be healthy and successful humans need to carry this energy throughout their whole bodies like blood. Those who visit Power Spots not only gain the benefits themselves but also send this energy to family, or the office (how Japanese) without noticing. This might be a very small trivial amount of energy, but that power keeps being sent and poured into those environments. In this way the entire energy keeps going up.

The guru also claims that by going to the power spots yourself, you share that energy with those surrounding you and are able to share the happiness. By having this kind of notion in our minds we are able to boost your own ability to carry more energy.

Now that we have a better understanding of what Power Spots are, you probably want to know WHERE they are. I have you covered. Stop back in for Part 2 in this series and I’ll reveal the top Power Stops in Japan for Love, Money, Healing, Health, Work/Study, and Getting Rid of Evil (no not your mother-in-law).

What do you think? Are Power Spots real or just a way to take advantage of the depressed, anxious, or bored?

Photo Credit

Power Spots: Japanese Spiritual and Travel Craze is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Inside Tokyo’s Red Light District Kabukicho http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/02/inside-tokyo-sex-district-kabukicho.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/02/inside-tokyo-sex-district-kabukicho.html#comments Mon, 14 Feb 2011 06:23:40 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=723 Read full article...

Inside Tokyo’s Red Light District Kabukicho is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Tout in Tokyo Red Light District Kabukicho

What is this guy doing on a weekday at noon?


As far as red light districts go, Tokyo’s Kabukicho near Shinjuku station is relativity tame. Unlike Amsterdam there are no pot houses (aka “coffee shops”), prostitutes are not for sale in windows like a pimped out version of a holiday display, and at only 600 square meters it’s not even that big. What Kabukicho lacks in overtness it makes up for in subtlety and uniqueness. I spent a day walking around during the day time, but come after 6 pm and the streets are packed with partying salary men showing business associates a “good time” and getting hammered. Sounds enticing doesn’t it.

What type of clubs exist in Kabukicho?

Kabukicho Red Light District Toky0

DVD and Peep shows seem to be a favorite the world over

The area is dominated by small drinking holes, DVD shops, peep holes, and host and hostess clubs that cater to lonely husbands and wives who need a little attention from well dressed, flirtatious professional conversationalists. If you are expecting the run of the mill strip club or sex club found in the west think again. Kabukicho caters almost exclusively to the Japanese and their unique passion for the stranger side of sexual fantasy. Clubs are often themed and filled with pretend secretaries, nurses, maids, dominatrices (well they might not be pretending), and any other fetish you can think of. There is naked karaoke, sex dolls for rent, reconstructed trains were you can group school girls (who are showing their age), and the eloquent “soap lands” where the ladies use “soap” to scrub you happy.

Be Careful

Love Hotel Japan Tokyo Kabukicho

A classy Love hotel in Kabukicho

Kabukicho is an interesting look into both a sexually liberated and restricted society. The strange tolerance of places like this, and the need for them is itself an interesting commentary on Japanese society. However, as with most sex districts in the world, criminals and crime syndicates pray on the drunken loneliness of the back ally visitors. Entrance fees can be hundreds of dollars and non-negotiable so don’t just pop in a place to check it out. Touts are on the streets selling themselves, their business or funneling the drunk and naive into holes in the wall.

A recent ordinance in Tokyo dictates that all sex clubs need to be closed by midnight (as opposed to closed in general!). Any open after midnight are sure to have protection by local gangs and should be avoided.

By the Numbers

This tiny area of Tokyo boasts over 300 sex shops, nearly 200 clubs, 80 love hotels, and hundreds of bars and restaurants. It is estimated that around 150,000 people pass through it each day. Whether you agree with it or not, it is an interesting facet of Japanese and Tokyo culture. My advice is check it ourtfor yourself, but leave early and enjoy the finer aspect of Japanese culture and society.

Have you been to Kabukicho? Curious?

Inside Tokyo’s Red Light District Kabukicho is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Nanakusa Gayu (Japanese Porridge or Congee with Seven herbs) http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/02/nanakusa-gayu-japanese-porridge-or-congee-with-seven-herbs.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/02/nanakusa-gayu-japanese-porridge-or-congee-with-seven-herbs.html#comments Wed, 09 Feb 2011 06:52:42 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=712 Read full article...

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This post is by Kay, who writes the K’s Kitchen section of Todd’s Wanderings. She also happens to be Todd’s lovely wife!

Japanese Seven Herbs Nanakusa Gayu Recipe

These are the Seven Herbs

This is a special and traditional dish that Japanese eat on January 7th with the wish to get rid of evil and bring health. Also, there is a connotation for resting your stomach after eating heavy and rich Osechi Meals over New Years. The porridge/congee is cooked with seven kinds of herbs: (Japanese parsley (seri); Shepherd’s purse (nazuna); Jersey Cudweed (gogyō); Common chickweed (hakobera); Henbit (hotokenoza); Turnip (suzuna); and Daikon (suzushiro).

They are seven herbs which represent spring. For your reference, there are seven leaves for autumn but they are for decoration not for cooking.

To be honest, this is not a very tasty and attractive dish as it is, but I like the significance of this custom and the idea to rest my stomach after eating a lot over new years. That being said, there is a period that I like to eat Porridge/congee, when I am sick. In the US and some countries, they tend to cook chicken soup when they are sick but Japanese tend to go for this porridge. In case you have not tried it when you are sick, this is the best dish to throw into your stomach and recover quickly when you don’t have appetite! We put these special herbs only for the Nanakusa Gayu, and normally eat the plain Porridge with some Japanese side-dishes, pickles, or plums (Umeboshi).

Ingredients (for 3-4 people)

  • How to Cook Japanese Porridge Nanakusa Gayu

    I love the green and white!

    Japanese Rice: 1 cup (Can be substituted with other sticky types of rice such as Thai). I use Macedonian rice in Kosovo which works perfectly!!

  • Water: 7 cups
  • Salt
  • 7 kinds of herbs (Seri, Nazuna, Gogyo, Hakobera, Hotokenoza, Suzuna, and Suzushiro- See the introduction paragraph for details). If you would like to make a plain porridge, you don’t need these herbs.

How to cook (cooking and preparation time: 40-50 min)

(1)  Wash rice and put in a pot with 7 Cups of water. Leave it for about 1 hour as it is.

(2)  Cook the rice in the pot for about 40min. Start the stove on medium and turn it down to low once the water starts boiling. If the water evaporates earlier than 40 min, that’s fine as long as the rice is cooked well.

(3)  Wash the herbs, cut them into small pieces, and put then in the pot. Cook for a few minutes, add salt, and leave the pot with the lid off after turning off the stove.

(4)  Serve in a bowl with some additional Japanese side-dishes /tsukemono as you like. Please see the reference below for pickles in case you would like to purchase them at the Asian Store.

Tips: The above recipe is cooking rice from scratch.  If you have some already cooked rice, you can also use it with 2-3 times more water than the amount of rice until the porridge looks like the one in the photo.

Japanese side dish to go with porridge/congee:

Tsukemono (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukemono)

Umeboshi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Umeboshi)

Tsukudani (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsukudani)

Curbed Tuna (Katsuobushi) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katsuobushi) with soy sauce

How did it go? What other Japanese dishes do you like?

Nanakusa Gayu (Japanese Porridge or Congee with Seven herbs) is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Video: Guided Tour of Japan’s Crowded former Black Market District http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/01/video-guided-tour-japan-crowded-ameyokocho-ueno-tokyo.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2011/01/video-guided-tour-japan-crowded-ameyokocho-ueno-tokyo.html#comments Mon, 03 Jan 2011 07:38:03 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=680 Read full article...

Video: Guided Tour of Japan’s Crowded former Black Market District is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Just after WWII the Japanese economy was in shambles and there were few Japanese products floating around. The area outside of Ueno Station in Tokyo quickly became famous for its ameya, candy, that represented the American black market products that could be bought there.

Today the street known as Ameya Yokocho, or Ameyokocho for short (not that much shorter actually), is still a crowded and bustling market area. Besides the normal clothing, bags and electronics shops dotting the area there are still traditional market stalls selling assorted Japanese foods from octopus to dried seaweed.

The whole area of Ueno is considered part of the Shitamachi (lower section of Tokyo) and was populated and frequented by the working class. While that distinction has faded with time, the liveliness of the area hasn’t and especially during the New Years Ameyokocho is packed with bargain hunters getting shopping for ingredients for the traditional New Years meal, osechi ryori.

If You Go

The area is busy and great for shopping anytime of the year. However, if you want to taste a truly unique Japanese experience visit on the 30th or 31st of December as the preparation for New Years gets underway. If you don’t like crowds this is not for you.

Arrive at Ueno Station and exit by the Shinobazu Exit on the south side of the station, cross the busy street and you’ll find Ameyoko on the right of the train tracks. Shops open and close according to their own schedules but in general are open between 10:00 and 19:00.

I’d love to know what you think of the video! And if you liked it please consider sharing it or liking it on YouTube.

Video: Guided Tour of Japan’s Crowded former Black Market District is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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When Japanese Toilets Fight Back http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/12/when-japanese-toilets-fight-back.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/12/when-japanese-toilets-fight-back.html#comments Sun, 05 Dec 2010 10:01:24 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=618 Read full article...

When Japanese Toilets Fight Back is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Japanese Toilet

Sure, it looks innocent now, but don't turn your back on it.

I was excited, nervous and sweaty. It was 2000 and I was on a date in Japan. I chose the perfect spot, the 11th floor bar overlooking Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest lake and where I spent 5 years of my life after university (near the lake, not the bar). The bar was called Medusa. Small and smokey (like most Japanese bars at the time) the dark room was sandwiched by glass. One side was wall to wall panoramic views of the lake, distant mountains  glowing in the sun’s retreat for the day. A black light lit massive aquarium claimed the wall behind the bar. At first glance it looked empty.

“Look again,” the bartender advised. He didn’t look up and kept at his task of shaping a large cube of ice into a sphere to accompany the scotch destined for a group of black tied salary men. We found two small jellyfish, tentacles undulating as they pushed and floated around the tank. It’s hard to know if the bar was being cheap, or just going for ultra minimalistic sheik. I decided cool, and we were hip to be there. Everything was going my way. She was laughing at my jokes, almost touching my arm, and hadn’t once looked at the business men who really could afford the place.

But this isn’t a story about my date.

Everything was going well, the drinks arrived. “Kampai.” We clinked our mojitos together. Yeah, mojitos were very cool back then. No one knew what they were.

I know, you are reading thinking everything is normal, but please, please remember it was2000, and I was a shy, quiet young man with not much sense of style, short on self confidence and even less money in my pocket.

Halfway through our drinks I decided to play it cool. “I’ll be right back. Just need to use the toilet.” Smooth, right?

I walked through the dim, smokey den like I owned it. When I passed women whispering, they were talking about me. [in a good way, seriously, a little credit please]. The men avoided my eyes because they couldn’t compete. I had everything. Then I entered the restroom.

Small, like most things in Japan, but stylish, like the rest of the bar, brushed steel trimmings and a glass sink basin. But what really drew my eyes was the toilet. A shiny, ToTo, complete with heated seat and full control panel that was as complicated as a airplane cockpit. A airplane cockpit with all the direction written in Japanese.

I sat down to enjoy the heated seat, even though there was no need to sit. I stayed away from the buttons not wanting anything to go wrong. I hadn’t yet learned to read a toilet. But then I saw it, the button I had been looking for all my life. A cute little button with the picture of a bird and two chiming notes. Could the Japanese have invented a melody to prevent unfortunate bathroom noises from escaping into the absurdly nearby bar? It made perfect sense, a lack of space in Japan meant bathrooms were basically one poorly insulated wall away from the drinking and flirting.

And lets face it. If you have to flush more than once people start wondering what’s going on. If you leave the sink running you are wasting water and destroying the environment. Either way, your screwed with the beautiful lady waiting for you outside. That day I didn’t need to flush or use the sink. But I couldn’t leave without listening to the greatest invention of the new millennium.

A little tip to anyone in a foreign land. Don’t push buttons if you don’t know what will happen. Especially buttons on a toilet. But then again what harm could a cute little bird be?

Needing to satiate the same driving curiosity that led me to Japan in the first place, I extended my index finger and pushed the cute little bird. “WHOOOSH, WHOOOSH, WHOOSH…” The sound of a flushing toilet assaulted me. Over and over again, louder and louder each time. There was no end. What the fuck! Where was the cute little bird?

“Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh…” the flushing sound continued one after another. I panicked and pushed the button again hoping it would turn off. It just extended the noise for another round. I panicked further. What if my date could hear? What would she think of me? I pushed more buttons out of desperation. I got hit immediately by a powerful stream of warm water. I jumped up.

Wrong choice. The water followed me out of the toilet and soaked my jeans. “Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh…” the noise wouldn’t stop. Adding to the cacophony of embarrassment  a blast of hot air roared out of the toilet like a jet engine. There was no place for me to escape the stream of water so I sat back down into an odd mix of wetness and heat. I sat in misery for what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably just another 30 seconds until everything finally shut off.

I sat there. Jeans soaked around my ankles wondering what to do next. Who in their right mind puts a bird tweeting picture to describe the sound of flushing? Why the hell would you make the flushing sound so vigorous? Of course this was Japan and there must be special technology to sound proof the bathroom. Right? Of course, this was Japan. I could explain away the wet jeans by blaming it on a tragic sink malfunction. I stood and gather myself and remember that I hadn’t actually flushed the toilet yet. I cursed, gathered my courage and flushed.

Nothing. Hardly any sound at all. The water drained away peacefully. It made me even angrier at the little cute bird and its mocking tweets. I had been in the toilet for almost 10 minutes. I was soaked, and thoroughly embarrassed. My only hope was that that no one had noticed.

The lock clicked loudly. Why was everything in this cursed bar so amplified? I gathered myself together and was ready to walk coolly through the crowd. I opened the foggy glass door, stepped back out into the smoky room and stopped dead in my tracks. All 20 patrons were staring at me. My faced turned a deep red as I limped through the room, caught up by tight wet jeans. Everyone was now certainly whispering about me, bastards.

I reached my date. She looked at me. I looked back. I braced for the questions. The water spread to my underwear, and I smelled like the toilet. A fancy, evil, Japanese toilet, but still a toilet.

She smiled, looked away… towards the bartender. “Two more” is all she said. The music started again, the crowds stopped whispering, I was still soaking wet but I had another mojito, I was still cool.

So you have a toilet story or another misadventure while on the road? Share all your dirty, embarrassing stories below.

Photo Credit

When Japanese Toilets Fight Back is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo, Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/11/10-free-things-to-do-in-tokyo-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/11/10-free-things-to-do-in-tokyo-japan.html#comments Wed, 24 Nov 2010 20:14:29 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=596 Read full article...

10 Free Things to Do in Tokyo, Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Many people dream of traveling to Japan and experiencing this unique island first hand. Culture, history, technology, fashion and food blend together in an unforgettable experience that not only rewards the intrepid traveler but has fueled pop culture around the world for decades. Japan has taken on a somewhat mythical persona as it highlights its cultural differences to the outside world and implanting the desire to visit the country in minds of countless travelers. However, one myth has served to repel would be visitors:  Japan is extremely expensive. While its true Japan can be expensive, a trip to Tokyo can still be done on a budget and can cost much less than a jaunt to Europe’s largest cities.

A journey to Japan can be incredibly rewarding without cashing out your child’s education fund. I lived in Japan for over 5 years, and my wife is from Tokyo. Since we travel there quite a bit we  try to keep our costs down as much as possible, especially as the Yen is at historical highs compared to other currencies. There are so many things to do in Tokyo that can burn a whole in your wallet. As frequent former resident, frequent visitor, and a lover of my own money, here are 10 things you can do in Tokyo for free. Enjoy, and use your savings to get out of Tokyo and experience the rest of Japan :)

1. Tsukiji Fish Market

Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo Japan

One tuna can sell for more than $10,000

Map of Tsukiji Fish Market Tokyo JapanYou used to have to wake up early, 4:30 am (or stay out drinking late), to experience the inner workings of the Japanese fish industry. Now visitors are not allow in until 9 am, I guess too many took the drinking option and interrupted the tuna auctions held at 5:30 am.  Nevertheless, a visit is still worth it to see  the wholesale clearing house for a nation addicted to the spoils of the sea. The market is smelly, and open every morning except Sunday. Located near Tsukiji Shiko Station on the Oedo Subway Line the market is made up of an inner market, where the wholesale business and tuna auctions take place, and an outer market with retail shops and restaurants that cater to the public. The Japanese as sticklers for the rules, which are now more complicated than ever. Use the map for help on where you can and can’t go, and at what times!

2. Harajuku

Tokyo street fashion Harajuku Japan

How long do you think it takes for them to get ready?

A trip to Tokyo is not complete without a glimps of Japan’s funky youth, desperately trying to be different by dressing in similar groups, from goth, to little bow peep outfits. Head to Harajuku on a Sunday, even rebels go to school and work, and head for the bridge. And don’t be shy, ask for your picture to be taken with them, they are not as scary as they look.

3.Yoyogi Park

Yoyogi Park Street Performers Tokyo Japan

Real or fake hair? You decide

Since you’re in the neighborhood and it’s Sunday, walk to nearby Yoyogi Park. On Sundays the park turns into a free outdoor concert with bands battling it out for attention, drum circles, artists and street performers under every tree. Besides the colorful street entertainment, the park itself is beautiful and worthy of a stroll, or even a rave.

4. Soak up the Views

Tokyo Skyline

Now those are streets you could get lost in

If you’re in Tokyo you had better make sure you see Tokyo. You don’t have a pay to get a good view and the 45th floor of Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office (also known as TMG Office) is one of the best. Right near Shinjuku Station, open from 09:30 am to 05:30 pm (07:30 on Sunday) and closed on public holidays, TMG offers stunning views of the city and if you’re lucky(read: if the smog clears) views of Mt. Fuji.

5. Imperial Palace and East Garden

Imperial Palace TokyoThe massive imperial palace grounds is set in the middle of Tokyo and surrounded by moats and held together with stone walls. Built on the former site of Edo castle, the imperial palace boasts one of the most beautiful gardens in all of Tokyo, the East Garden. The garden is free to enter (closed Mondays, Fridays and special occasions), and while you at it book a free tour of the grounds (its the only way you can get into the inner areas). This will require some advanced planning but luckily the application is online and in English (click here). The buildings and inner gardens are off limits as the imperial family lives there, but the doors are thrown wide open on the Emperor’s birthday (December 23) and for the New Years greeting (January 2nd). Time your visit right and you’ll get a free peak into Japan’s royal family.

6. Temples and Shrines

Sensoji Temple Tokyo

Senso-ji Temple with its vibrant gate and pagoda

Most Buddhist Temples and Shinto shrines are free in Tokyo. Considering they can be hundreds of years old, hold elaborate and colorful festivals, and contain some of the countries most treasured artifacts, that’s a pretty good deal. A few of the most popular, and some of my favorites include: Sensoji temple in Asakusa (from the 7th century!), Meiji Shrine in Shibuya and Zozoji Temple near Tokyo Tower.

7. Show Rooms

Sony Showroom TokyoWho doesn’t love gadgets, and when they are free to play with and sometimes not yet released to the general public they become even better. Visit the Sony Building in Ginza and enjoy 4 floors of the  latest gadgets. It’s near to the Sukiyabashi Crossing and is open everyday from 11:00am to 7:00pm.

8. Gadgets

Akihabara Tokyo

Gadgets, gadgets and some maids...in the coffee shops, geeks love maids

Not tired of gadgets yet? Who would be, you’re in Tokyo and  the buzz of electricity is everywhere. To see, and play with, more than just the Sony goodies head down to Tokyo’s electronics district Akihabara and wander in and out of the shops. Technically its free, but your wallet might take a hit after you start drooling over the latest cell phones and digital cameras.

9. Manhole Covers

Japanese Manhole Cover

Dirty, but still pretty

Yes, you read that correctly, manhole covers. Details are everything in Japan and if you spend all your time looking up at the tall buildings and the gigantic flashing TV screens you’ll miss the beauty under your feet. Manhole covers are usually fashioned in a traditional design and vary street to street as a way to mark the different tunnel systems underneath. You can’t take them home, but the picture and the story are free, all you have to do is walk, look, and pay attention (think of it as walking mediation).

10. Visit a sumo stable

Sumo Japan

You won't get this in the morning, but you'll still get the g-strings

Sumo has taken a bruising recently in the media due to gambling, pot smoking and charges some players coaches are connected to the Yakuza. Despite the dirt, it is still amazing to see up close and personal. Just don’t get too close as they are big, sweaty and wearing traditional g-strings. Tokyo boasts three grand sumo tournaments per year but these cost money. A better strategy is to visit a stable (a training hall) and watch sumo players work out in the morning. There are over 50 stables spread throughout Tokyo but no easy way to get in on the action without a guide. Your best best is to ask your hotel for help, or even just visit the Ryogoku area, the home of sumo in Tokyo, in the morning and listen for the screams :)

Know of any other freebies in Tokyo. Leave your comments and ideas below.

[Disclaimer: things change, times, costs, even buildings. The information here is accurate to the best of my knowledge at the time of publishing. But things change...I think I mentioned that earlier, so check times and access before you go]

Photo Credits 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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Top 5 Foods to Eat and Experience in Japan http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/11/top-5-foods-to-eat-and-experience-in-japan.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/11/top-5-foods-to-eat-and-experience-in-japan.html#comments Wed, 03 Nov 2010 14:14:20 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=566 Read full article...

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No visit to Japan is complete without experiencing Japanese food the way the locals do. In Japan there is no way to separate eating from the atmosphere and experience. Food in Japan touches all of the senses from the minimalistic elegance of sashimi to the visual gourmet versions of hamburger patties. There’s more to Japanese food than sushi but let’s face it, navigating the difficult menus in a New York Japanese restaurant can be daunting enough, let alone tackling lesser known dishes on their home turf.  With Fall in full swing, and November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan tackling the topic of Fall foods in Japan, I started to think about what I love to eat in Japan this time of the year. This made me hungry and ruined all objectivity, displaced Fall and set me down the path to the 5 foods I love to eat during the Fall and every other season :) To help you follow in my footsteps and guide you through this culinary and cultural experience I’ve created a list of 5 dishes that are a must for any visitor to Japan.

Hungry yet?

The Japanese are famous for specializing and defining. It’s no different with food as each of these dishes will usually be served in its own specialized restaurant complete with accompanying unique atmosphere. Warning, if you are a vegetarian this menu is probably not for you, but there are always ways to substitute fish and vegetables for the meat dishes. But be careful, sometimes pork is not considered meat!

1) Donburimono

Japanese Donburi rice bowl

So much goodness all in one bowl.

Donburi is a large rice bowl and the “mono” (lit. things) refers to the delicious toppings laid over the bed of rice. There is a large variety of Donburi from comfort food, such as chicken and egg oyako-don, stewed beef and onions gyu-don, and fried pork and egg katsu-don, to the more refined variations like tempura ten-don, marinated eel unagi-don, or even sea urchin una-don.

All of these are a great value, even the more expensive fish dishes, as you can eat out with just one dish. Finding a quality local shop may take a bit of work but it will be worth it. If you are looking to only experience gyu-don visit the chain shops Yoshinoya or Matsuya. You’ll have to decide for yourself which is better as its one of those questions that divides the nation. If you’re by the sea or a fish market look for the seafood versions as they’ll be the freshest.

2) Okonomiyaki

Japanese Okonomikayi

Usually called a Japanese pancake, but so differnet this should stop as its nothing like a pancake other than being flat and fried.

It’s not really a pancake, or a pizza, definitely not a crepe but it’s certainly delicious. Made with batter, egg, and your choice of vegetables, beef, pork, seafood and even noodles, you have to do the work here. The ingredients usually come out raw and you have to cook them on the large teppan (hotplate) that you sit around. There’s a variety of ways to make it depending if you are in Tokyo, Osaka or Hiroshima (my favorite) but the basics are: cook the fillings, pour on the batter and beaten egg, flatten the mixture on the teppan with the metal spatula provided, and flip over after five minutes. Aim for a browned outside keeping the inside soft. Finally, add the sauce with the brush provided and/or mayonnaise, and sprinkle on the fish flakes…if you’re into that sort of thing.

3) Yakitori

Japanese Yakitori

Grab a beer and enjoy.

Literally grilled chicken, there is so much more to these skewers that can contain the full range of chicken bits, meat, liver, heart, cartilage and skin. Prices are usually by the skewer, even if more than one arrives, so be careful. They are cooked to order over charcoal and come with either sauce (tare) or salt (shio) seasoning. Nothing goes better with it than a large cold beer and good company. Yakotori can be found everywhere, from specialized restaurants to street stalls. In either case pull a seat up to the bar and be prepared for your orders to be yelled around the room, repeated by everyone from the server to the cook.

4) Ramen

Japanese Ramen

Feel free to slurp all you want. How else are you supposed to eat noodles with chopsticks!

These long Chinese noodles have become the staple of the Japanese fast food industry. Pop in for a quick and inexpensive bite during lunch or after a long night drinking on the town. Ramen shops are on just about every corner in Japan and you’ll be able to find one easily. More difficult will be trying to decide what type you want, from curry to miso to chicken broth, topped with marinated pork to an extra helping of spring onions. Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any choice, it’s all delicious. Add in a plate of gyoza, Japanese fried pot stickers, and you have one great meal.

5) Izakaya

Japanese Izakaya

Ok, technically it's not a food, but it IS an experience with plenty to delicious food.

This is the ultimate Japanese communal eating experience that can only be described as Japanese tapas. They are a great way to experience a wide variety of Japanese food, and drink copious amounts of beer, sake or chu-hai (shochu with flavored carbonated water. I like ume-chuhai, plum flavored. Yum!

These are friendly places that are like the local pub on the corner. Japanese come after work to share food, stories, and bond with each other. The portions are usually small and the variety of foods can be staggering, as will be your bill if you try to have a proper meal. Use your time in an Izakaya to sample different dishes, get to know those you are with, or even sitting next to, and then decide on a cheaper option for the next stop in the night.

What are you favorite Japanese foods? Need more suggestions or help reading the menu? Comment away below.

November Japan Blog Matsuri, hosted by Surviving in Japan

(Photo credits in order: singingbeagle, Smaku, TenSafeFrogs, wonderferret, SpirosK, nicolacassa)

Top 5 Foods to Eat and Experience in Japan is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Japan Highlights – Japan Blog Matsuri http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/10/japan-highlights-japan-blog-matsuri.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/10/japan-highlights-japan-blog-matsuri.html#comments Mon, 25 Oct 2010 12:37:37 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=540 Read full article...

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japan matsuri bannerWelcome to the October Japan Blog Matsuri! This month’s topic is Japan Highlights and we asked the brightest Japan Bloggers to tell us what THEY thought was the best Japan has to offer…Japan’s best places, experiences, activities…whatever. The “whatever” is important. This is not your typical Japan “must see list” that tries to speak to everyone. This is not a clumsy “top ten things to do in Japan” post that has been repeated over, and over again. This is a glimpse into what makes Japan special to a bunch of completely different people. There’s something for everyone here, so pour yourself a sake, squeeze out that wasabi and enjoy a guided tour.

Miyajima Japan

Beautiful Miyajima, definitely a Highlight!

Before the tour starts and the train doors close, don’t forget to check out last month’s host Nippon-Ichigo, who rocked out to the theme Japan Music. Awesome!

Weather your just planning your trip, or you’re already there, these articles provide plenty of travel inspiration on all the must sees, dos, experiences, eats, drinks, whatever Japan has to offer. (Hey, click the large bold, underlined titles to be taken magically to the full articles.)


obimatsuri shizuokaReason’s to Visit Shizuoka

Ashely from Surviving in Japan takes us on a whirlwind tour of Shizuoka Prefecture and introduces us to the top 10 reasons to visit. She was on a mission not to be cliche so rest assured you’ll only get meat in this great post, no filling! She also has a project to explore all the other great things about Shizuoka which you can find here.


Japan mixJapan’s Highlights

Abi from Inside the Travel Lab really takes the mission to heart. She offers the best of her recent trip. It’s an eclectic mix ranging from Kyoto’s Old Town to Folding Prayers. A great article that highlight a diverse and wonderful Japan.



Japan Record StoreTokyo: A Music Nerd’s Paradise

Good and Bad Japan looks at Japan in a unique way, through the eyes of niche nerds. While he thinks Tokyo offers up options for any nerd, from the comic book collector to those desperate for the love of  fine ukuleles, it’s music that gets him going.  He enjoys the  great food, great places, great nature, great people, great onsen,  but the one thing he really loves  is trawling the record shops of Tokyo with a bit of spare cash in his pocket.


Japanese squat toiletFlushed Away

We never said this Matsuri was going to be classy! Through Eyes From Afar brings us his Japan Highlight…the Squat Toilet. Not sure how this could possibly be a highlight? We’ll check it out and read about the traditional holes in the ground and their many health benefits. There’s probably a reason the Japanese live for so long!.


Harajuku styleI Wanna do That! To Do List.

Amanda from Whoa…I’m in Japan, has a Top 7 bucket list of things she can’t wait to do in Japan. Amanda covers some of the best things to do and experience in Japan. Funny the squat toilet didn’t make her list, but after reading the Matsuri I’m sure she will manage to squeeze it in…yes, that was potty humor.



Kansai HighlightsNachi no Taki Japan

We’ve heard from the Tokyo dwellers, now it’s time to hear what Kansai has to offer. Of course Kansai is much much more than just Kyoto and Osaka. The Blog Side of Life brings us the best of Kansai. A great mix from the all-female musical theater troupe in Kobe, to the holy waterfall in Nachi, to the sacred grounds of Mount Koya. You’ll love them all!



Sunrise Mount FujiUnforgiving Mount Fuji

What trip to Japan could be complete without hauling yourself up Japan’s most storied, and highest mountain. Fuji-san is one of those trips that will live on in your own personal highlight reel long after you leave Japan. Lonelee Planet gives us the blow by painful blow of what it takes to climb Fuji, but also the wonderful rewards.


japan maneki neko30 Must Have Souvenirs

Last but certainly not least, Muza from Muza-chan’s Gateway to Japan brings us this amazingly comprehensive list of what’s worth buying in Japan. There are now no excuses for not following the Japanese custom of bringing home souvenirs for everyone, family, friends, coworkers, the mailman. What makes this list particularly useful are the travel tips giving you great advice on when and where to pickup these gifts.

Serendipity

Of course what kind of host would I be if I didn’t offer you anything myself. Like all the other bloggers I had a difficult time deciding on non cliche highlights. I have written on Japan a number of times and all contain a highlight or two:

This happy guy could be around any corner!

Sexual Secrets of Japanese Temple

3 Most Dangerous Matsuri

The Backside to Iwayaji Temple on Shikoku

The Hermit in Seclusion

Japanese Food Find: Placenta!

All of these add up to one great highlight of Japan: something new and crazy is around every corner. You’ll never find any of these in a guidebook. They are available and ready only for the adventurous to find, in the winding backstreets of Japan. For me this is the greatest highlight of them all. So make your plans, get a map, follow the advice of everyone above, but don’t forget to leave time for serendipity. I promise you, Japan, and its wonderful people are full of surprises!

Next month’s Matsuri can be found at Surviving in Japan, no Japanese necessary!

Have you been to Japan? Planning a trip? What are your must sees, dos, eats etc?

(Miyajima photo credit: karma-police)

Japan Highlights – Japan Blog Matsuri is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Iwayaji Temple Japan- My Favorite Place in the World http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/09/iwayaji-temple-japan-my-favorite-place-in-the-world.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/09/iwayaji-temple-japan-my-favorite-place-in-the-world.html#comments Sat, 18 Sep 2010 15:10:09 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=461 Read full article...

Iwayaji Temple Japan- My Favorite Place in the World is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Back Gate to Iwayaji Temple Shikoku Japan

The Back Gate to Iwayaji in Japan hidden in a forest forgotten by the modern world.

I’m not the type of person to have favorites. Whether they are movies, places, people, authors or anything else. My tastes and my boredom levels change too quickly to push any one place above another. But when I was asked by the Lonely Planet Blogsherpa Carnival to write about my favorite place in the world, I knew immediately where it was, the back side of Iwayaji Temple on Shikoku Japan.

A Little Background

Iwayaji Temple is the 45th temple on the Pilgrimage to the 88 Buddhist Temples of Shikoku, located in Ehime Prefecture. The pilgrimage, covering 1,200-1,400 kilometers depending on who you believe, is Japan’s most famous and visited pilgrimage. Still going strong after more than 1,000 years, legend attributes the pilgrimage to the founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kobo Daishi who was born and gained enlightenment on the Island of Shikoku. Not satisfied with just enlightenment, he also created the Japanese kana writing system, visited China, and hobnobbed with royalty. Trust me, that’s a lot back in the 8th Century.

The real development of the pilgrimage is more complicated as it evolved after Kobo Daishi’s death and his followers tried to retrace in his physical and mental footstep. More traditional localized holy sites, complete with mountain ascetics  (yamabushi) and Shinto shamans, where incorporated into the larger pilgrimage that rings the island of Shikoku and passes though 4 of the most remote and untouched prefectures in Japan.

Buddha and Jizo Statues in Shikoku Japan, Iwayaji Temple 45

Beautiful Buddha Statues line the path. The smaller Jizo statues are the most popular Bodhisattva statue in Japan and grace tens of thousands of roads as Jizo-san is said to help and protect travelers.

Legend says the location was donated to Kobo Daishi  by a mysterious female recluse named Hokke-Sennin. He built the temple on the mountain, considered a holy place by those seeking enlightenment in the cliff’s caves, and carved and enshrined a Buddha image deep in a cave so that the whole mountain would be worshiped.

Still with me? Here’s why…

Shrine beind Iwayaji Temple 45 Shikoku Japan

Mystical shrine surrounded by enormous trees.

Shikoku (and the pilgrimage) is one of my favorite places in the world, but its the path behind the Iwayaji Temple that holds the coveted number 1 in my heart. Every year about 150,000 people make the pilgrimage and probably countless more visit Iwayaji as a stand alone temple. However, most of those making the journey to this remote mountain temple built into a spectacular cliff arrive by car, bus or bike.  They park their cars and walk the steep stone steps to the front cliff and main temple along a beautiful river. What they don’t usually see is the beauty that lies behind the temple.

There is a second way to approach the temple along the ancient walking pilgrim route that crests the mountain behind the temple. The trail delivers the walker from a pristine wooded ridge line path into an ancient moss green forest with enormous cypress trees and age worn shrines and religious carvings. The forest is dark, damp and its enormity and silence creates an atmosphere were a Buddha or Shinto god could easily pop out from behind the next corner. It is also along this path that I came to a sudden realization about my life, where I want to be and what I love to do. This journey, my second walking pilgrimage around Shikoku, is the topic of my current book project on the Shikoku Pilgrimage and how my current lifestyle began (feel free to spread the word) ;) .

Not a week goes by that I don’t think about the path leading to Temple 45 and the effect it’s had on my life. I dream of going back, if for nothing more than to spend some time in that magical forest empty of humanity but full of gods, demons, enlightenment and bright green moss.

Henro path leading to Iyawaji Temple 45 Shikoku

I know, its a beautiful path...that's what I've been trying to tell you!

What is your favorite place? Describe what you love about it and let us know how to get there!

Blogsherpa Travel CarnivalThis post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Sophie over at Sophies’s World. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Your Favorite Place. I hosted one here earlier on Todd’s Wanderings about Travel Safety.

Iwayaji Temple Japan- My Favorite Place in the World is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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Crazy Japanese Food Find: Placenta! http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/06/crazy-japanese-food-find-placenta.html http://www.toddswanderings.net/2010/06/crazy-japanese-food-find-placenta.html#comments Fri, 04 Jun 2010 11:10:10 +0000 Todd Wassel http://www.toddswanderings.net/?p=255 Read full article...

Crazy Japanese Food Find: Placenta! is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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I love Japan. I lived there for five years, I speak Japanese, my wife is Japanese, I even walked a 900 mile Japanese pilgrimage twice. And yet, every time I think that I have nothing more to learn, that Japanese culture cannot shock me any further I am pleasantly surprised. Actually there is nothing pleasant about this.

Japanese Blended Pig Placenta Drink

Yum! The cartoon doctor in the background has convinced me.

While I was shopping I came across the wonderfully named drink Placenta! It is no secret that the Japanese love English, not speaking it fluently, but pasting it on anything and everything to make it seem cooler. Most items make no sense and are just random words strung together. Others are more unfortunate, like the  5 year old girl in my elementary school English class who showed up wearing a t-shirt that said “Smack the Bitch and Pump the Hoes.” I’m still trying to figure out if this was supposed to be a gangster tag line or that of an enraged farmer. In her parent’s defense, it was pink and had cute little flowers on it.

So my natural reaction at seeing the drink Placenta, was that some poor office worker was asked to come up with an English word that conveyed health and vitality for their new line of vitamin supplement drinks. Unable to speak English he turned to his ever present electronic dictionary and the rest is marketing history. To my surprise they new exactly what they were doing! It is blended pig placenta, bottled and distributed all across Japan for your pleasure.

Placenta Facial MaskYes, you read that correctly. Blended Pig Placenta. For about $8.50 you can drink a 30 milliliter bottle of Blended Pig Placenta. In fact more Japanese drink it than I could possibly imagine. So many people that a new, popular product line was developed of beverages of various placental concentrations (tastes like peaches!), capsules, an organic skin cream and a wearable facial mask filled with placental extract. Sexy, I can’t wait to see my wife with a little placenta on her face (no she does not use it…nor will there be ANY placenta related projects in our house!).

I know what you’re thinking: Japan is such a crazy place. Well they might have been ahead of the curve on this one as Placentophagy – the storied, age-old tradition of placenta eating – is on the rise again. Yup, that’s right. There seems to be a growing movement- conspiracy?- in the US and other places to get placenta onto our plates. They have even gone so far as to try to slip it onto our pizzas!

So you may be wondering what the lesson is here. Other than making you think about and decide if you want to drink or eat Placenta there is no lesson. Oh, wait, maybe it’s that what we find strange in other cultures is just a result of our own ignorance. And that usually we can find the same practices right back at home; we are just not trained to see them as clearly as when we are in a foreign society and everything looks new and different. That is, if you want to get philosophical about Blended Pig Placenta.

Have you eaten or tried to drink Placenta? Would you? What other crazy foods have you come across in your travels or even in your local market? Leave your comments below.

Blogsherpa Travel CarnivalThis post is part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa Travel Blog Carnival hosted this time by Jennifer over at Orange Polka Dot. The Carnival is hosted every two weeks by a BlogSherpa member. The topic this time is Foreign Food Finds. I hosted the last one here on Todd’s Wanderings about Travel Safety.

Crazy Japanese Food Find: Placenta! is a post from: Todd's Wanderings

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