Japanese culture is all-knowing, all-powerful... how else can you explain the fact it keeps following me around in the middle of Texas? I was driving towards Dallas' Koreatown and caught sight of a large sign boasting: "Back off JAPAN! Dokdo Island Belongs to KOREA"
As someone who has heard of some of the territorial disputes Japan has acquired over the years - islands north of Hokkaido with Russia, south of Okinawa with China or Taiwan - I must confess the first time I heard the name Dokdo was outside of Nippon.
Let's review, shall we? The island is a little less than a square kilometer of rock, not far from the Oki Islands off the western coast of Japan and the Ulleungdo Islands of South Korea. South Korea does have historical precedent here, being the first ones to place the islands on a national map and giving them name. Japan admits as such.
However, following the Allied occupation of Japan after WWII, things get a little sticky. What MacArthur most likely did was relinquish control of the islands and, as a consequence, return them to Korean rule. But modern cartographers and politicians have taken issue with this, and everything following Takeshima (as the island is known in Japan).
What's your take?
On a side note, I have a sinking suspicion the sign was placed in this particular location for its proximity to a Korean restaurant named (surprise, surprise) Dokdo Island. And perhaps that is the best solution both sides can agree on: grab a set of chopsticks and start devouring the rocks until both Japanese and Korean citizens have an equal amount of territory in their digestive systems. It would still taste better than shirako.
10. Food portions I don't need seconds of creamy mashed potatoes. With the limited options available to me, I ate only as much as I needed. The curse of an addictive personality; this is the reason I don't stockpile food in my apartment: it would be gone in a matter of hours.
9. Japanese kids Being a celebrity in their eyes, hearing random "HELLO"s as I walked down the street...
8. Nightlife Being the foreign celebrity amongst Japanese girls and the occasional sumo wrestler; just try dancing with one of those guys. All night karaoke with friends. Catching the first train from Hiroshima at 5:55 AM. Also in favor of the late night snacking options, which includes 3 AM ramen.
7. Scenery Waking up to smoking volcanoes. Always being surrounded by mountains.
6. Cherry blossoms Ya gotta love those trees.
5. Understanding Knowing the day-to-day life in another culture, and seeing how we're not so different.
4. Everyday adventures I suppose I made the most of this myself, but it still holds true: traveling to distant islands; meeting descendants of samurai; hiking into volcanoes; hitchhiking across Kyushu; cycling to hot springs... Adventures in Japan
3. All Japanese food Sushi, sashimi, yakiniku, fugu, basashi, ramen, yakitorii, onigiri, udon, yasai, daikon, satsuma imo, gohan, edamame, ocha, oolong. It does a body good.
On the first or second week of February in Sapporo on the island of Hokkaido, a festival is held celebrating the wonders that can be produced with snow. Up and down the central park of Odori, one can bear witness to: ice sculptures, filled with multicolored lights which turn on and off according to the music being played nearby; snow sculptures the size of small buildings, recreations of Japanese castles (above), Disney characters, and great whales; ice karaoke bars, where one may drink Bailey's out of ice buckets and then sing surrounded by ten-inch walls of ice.
10. Lack of variety of food On occasion, I like my French toast, my bacon and eggs, my Texas BBQ, my Mexican food...
9. All the mayonnaise I can bite into a sandwich without fear in the states.
8. Train conductors I know what the next stop is. Let me sleep, stop asking to see my ticket. Can't you change the chime once a year?
7. Getting sucked into seeing discriminatory behavior There are real instances of racial discrimination in Japan, but once you flick that switch, it's hard to stop seeing anything else... not everyone feels the same way. http://www.debito.org/index.php
6. Kancho Only happened once, but that's all it takes...
5. Being an American abroad It's helpful to my soul to hear reminders of what the rest of the world thinks of "us", but it wore me down after a time.
4. Angry foreigners Gaikokujin who have become so withdrawn and bitter with their Japanese experience they feel compelled to complain to anyone who speaks English. Avoid them at all costs.
3. Rigidity Japanese culture is so tightly controlled, from the conformist attitude instilled in children to the precise measure of concrete to be used on sidewalks. When I first saw the open highways of Thailand after leaving Japan I had never felt more free.
2. Octopus porn Do I really have to justify this one?
1. Standing out, or being alone in a sea of people I do miss this, and yet I don't. I'm special, but I know I'm not. I'm taller than average, bigger than most, and appealing to the ladies. But Japan isn't the world. Don't forget where you came from, how you acted, if you grew as a person rather than let yourself fall into the category of "celebrity foreigner".
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the shinkansen. This is the Nozomi Superexpress bound for Tokyo."
One of the strangest things I've had to get used to now that I no longer live in Japan is the lack of announcements. Don't get me wrong, there's more than enough information overload in the states, but few statements of actions being taken. In Japan, no matter where you go or what you do, foreigner or Japanese, people are paying attention to you. Enter a store, and the staff will acknowledge your presence. Board a train, and an automated announcement will provide the name, type of train, destination, and stops along the way. I have a feeling if I walked into a restaurant in the states and asked the hostesses to shout "WELCOME!", I might get a few stares.
What are some of the more common announcements you'll hear in Japan?
1. Irrasshaimase! (いっらっしゃいませ)
"Welcome!" is a greeting you'll encounter upon entering convenience stores, supermarkets, sometimes even private English schools. The most memorable time, however, is surely in restaurants, when all members of the wait and kitchen staff are informed of your arrival and scream "irrasshaimase" at the top of their lungs in a joyous celebration of your presence. Make a guy feel special, that's for sure.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, we will soon make a brief stop at Shin-Kobe. The exits are on the left side of the train. Passengers going to the subway line, please change trains here at Shin-Kobe."
Believe me, I rode the Kyushu Shinkansen so often I had the timing of the chimes and stop announcements memorized. Expect the speakers to blare when you depart, when you're about to arrive, and when you're making your final approach. Don't expect anything announcing when drinks will be served or tickets checked, though.
I didn't think it was possible until I wandered into one of the larger department stores. Although plenty of elevators are unmanned, there are a few with automated announcements for each floor, and, in some cases, an operator who will bow at your entry and call off the floors as they are passed.
I think I was in some small neighborhood onsen of Kagoshima the first time it happened. Although sento (regular bathhouses) are commonplace enough in the rest of Japan, this southern capital had taken it upon itself to fill every last public ofuro with volcanic bliss, powered by the overlooking peninsula-once-island Sakurajima. And it worked quite well; aging Japanese businessmen rest their weary bones in waters more soothing than any available in the urban sprawl that is Tokyo.
I too enjoyed lowering my body into the watery abyss, letting my face remain just above the surface to inhale the slightly sulfuric fumes of what had become my thrice-weekly indulgence.
And we talked in the bath, those Japanese and I. Rambled on about the differences in our cultures, debated which onsen were the best in the land, and tried to trick the other into moving into the current of the tenki furo (electric bath), to thunderous laughter. But more often than not, in my neighborhood hot springs and while soaking across the country, a question that nearly always came up was: "Do you have hot springs in your country?"
I didn't really have a good answer for those men; with the exception of Palm Springs and what I assumed were a smattering of geothermal springs in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains, I had no idea of what calming soaks I could have missed in my own hometown. Are hot springs even possible in the central US, where evidence of volcanoes are thousands of years in the past, and unlikely to produce anything remotely similar to what one sees all over Japan?
In Japan, most of the springs are fueled by underground water sources coming into close proximity to magma or volcanic "veins" of heat rising to the surface. As these types of hot springs are usually superheated, many have to be regulated so as not to scald the bather.
Although some springs in the United States are heated in a similar manner, others are the result of geothermal heat: the deeper you go towards the center of the Earth, the higher the temperature of the rocks. Hot springs powered in this manner need to reach a sufficient depth in the planet's crust to achieve any significant temperatures (enough for soothing baths, anyway). As volcanic springs are able to form closer to the surface and with much higher temperatures, I prefer their waters coursing through my skin.
My Google search led me straightaway to west Texas, more specifically Big Bend National Park, where an outdoor hot spring pool lay on the border between the great state and Mexico: the Rio Grande.
Mere walking (or swimming) distance from the closest Mexican village, the springs is remote by even Big Bend standards - just keep driving east until you see a sign; turn onto an unpaved road; be careful as the unpaved road forks and leads you onto a narrow and treacherous road; dismount and follow the signs, taking note of the trinkets (hiking sticks, wire scorpions) Mexican craftsmen have left with a small note requesting money; do your part and help border relations... the path across the river may have been muddied by 9/11, but we still both live with each other, side by side, each helping the other in times of need.
A little farther down the sandy path and you'll come across the ruins of what was once the bathhouse, now a mere foundation used to prevent the water from flowing directly into the river. I must admit I was skeptical... but fear not, these springs are comparable to any seaside onsen in Japan; not quite up to the sulfuric taste of Ioujima, but definitely a close second to Furusato Onsen on Sakurajima. The hot springs at Rio Grande Village is recommended for its remote location, soothing waters, and communion with nature. Take a soak in the shadow of Native American pictographs and melt your troubles away in the Texas sun. Everything is bigger, better, and apparently more relaxing in Texas.
If you desire a little more privacy, drive about a hundred miles west to the town of Ruidosa, where the private resort Chinati Hot Springs lies. You may have to deal with runaway burros and adapt to the owner's bloodhounds, but once you settle, you'll find an excellent place to get away and soak under the starry night: no cell phones, no ambient noise, not even a car wheel turning.
The water at Chinati comes out at a mere 109 degrees, so it's best to catch it quickly. You do have the benefit of a private bath.
Next up... exploring the hot springs of New Zealand as I make it a habit to travel and soak. Remember, hot springs are best when the weather is chilly, so make the most of the time you have left.