There aren’t many tangible memories of my time in Kanto–my dad was in charge of all the photography at the time and wasn’t the most consistent in documenting our trip.
Ah, my first authentic Japanese meal. Just based on the few Japanese restaurants I had been to in the US, I assumed that we would have nothing to eat in Japan as a vegetarian family. Eating avocado sushi and drinking miso soup every meal for an entire week would have been nauseating. Surprisingly, there were tangy, sweet, and savory pickled vegetables, seaweed salads, tempura, konnyaku and agedashi tofu that took the place of sushi. In fact, not a single piece of sushi was ever served to us or the other members of our tour–not for this trip or for any of our future trips to Japan. It was almost mind-blowing to experience Japanese food outside of the typical ones served at Shabu Shabu restaurants or sushi bars.
I don’t remember our first day in Tokyo beyond that. Our second day was far more memorable: a trip to Owakudani Valley (大涌谷), a mountainous region of bubbling sulfuric hot springs. What made this area so special was the fact that ‘kurotamago’, 黒卵, was sold here. Literally means ‘black egg’. These were eggs specially boiled in the hot springs there so they would have the unmistakable, stinky, rotten smell of sulfur infused in them, and that came out with black shells instead of white. We all bought a few of them at $1.50 each; they were indeed stinky, and had a peculiarly satisfying taste that I could never quite place. Our tour guide told us that eating kurotamago is rumored to increase one’s longevity. I guess we’ll see.
Owakudani Valley is a part of the Mt. Fuji-Hakone National Park; unfortunately for us, it was too cloudy of a day to see Mt. Fuji. With not much more to do or see, we were ushered down into Shinjuku, the major commercial and governmental center of Tokyo. Fifty-two stories higher, we were put on the observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office. From here, one could glimpse a panoramic view of Tokyo–and if lucky enough, Mt. Fuji.
This particularly eventful day ended with time to shop and walk through the Ginza district. Ginza, 銀座, is famously-known as one of the most expensive districts in Tokyo (or is it Japan?). All window-shopping here. Though I distinctly remember buying a pack of the most beautifully delicate origami paper. That paper remains unused to this day. While squeezing past the multitude of busy Japanese rushing to get home, it was tempting to not test what our tour guide had told us earlier in the day. Apparently, since the Japanese are an incredibly curious people that tend to enjoy congregating in large groups, if you’re ever lost in Tokyo and need help, all you have to do is suddenly break down crying in the middle of the street and a crowd of several dozen Japanese will gather around you within minutes. Or if you are in a mood to troll, simply stand in the street and choose something to stare at: soon there will be dozens of Japanese staring along with you. それが面白くない?
The next day we visited our first Shinto Temple. It was a quaint shrine, sheltered under the foliage of twittering green trees.
Afterwards, we took the bus to a nearby lake, where lunch was served. The novelty takeaway from that lunch was getting the chance to make our own wasabi and sesame pastes. Fresh wasabi roots were laid out for each person, as well as a grate. Minutes of furious grating passed, lactic acid built up in my forearms, and I had nothing more than a teaspoonful of wasabi made. I looked around the room and saw that most others had given up and simply opted for premade wasabi. But not I. I continued my frantic grating. As I grated, my dad realized that we needed some shredded daikon to mix in the soy sauce for our tempura. Our tour guides were missing and there was no one to translate for us. So charades it was! We called over the servers and did our best to mimic daikon: “Chikan? Fishu? Appelu? Oranju?” By then, everyone involved was cracking up–frustrated, but dying of laughter. We tried speaking Chinese, hoping it would translate, “robo/蘿蔔”. But they just thought we were trying to say “gobo”. Finally, a server who vaguely knew Chinese stepped up and suggested “…daikon?” And all of us shouted “Sou sou sou!” (yes yes yes!)
All in a good day of fun. With our bellies full, we shipped off to visit the last stops of our trip in Japan. The Odawara Castle ‘小田原城堡’, the Kamakura Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine ‘鶴岡八幡宮’, a stroll down Wakamiya Street ‘若宮大路’, Daibutsu ‘鎌倉大佛’–the Great Buddha of Kamakura–, and even a small zoo. Remember: if you’re visiting a Shinto or Buddhist temple, you must first cleanse yourself with the water provided near the entrance of the temple. Left hand first, then right hand. Your face too, if you can.
Our last night was spent over a steaming bowl of hot pot and a fun night of karaoke with everyone on our tour. Parents sang their hearts out for all of us to toasts with sake. Everyone was obligated to dress in the yukatas and getas provided by the hotel.
While I can’t say I can recall every aspect of my trip, it was definitely the first time that I found travel to be so enjoyable. To be able to sleep in clean, hygienic hotel rooms and to eat food that was not only delicious and healthy but that also did not lead to long nights in the bathroom, in Asia, seemed remarkable to me. It was a good time.