I knew how much things had changed when I asked the immigration official at Busan airport not to put the stamp on one of the two remaining clean pages in my passport. Previously, I've gloried in getting new passport stamps, and can still remember the stupidly giddy excitement of the first few, examining each one in detail, and wondering what the next border crossing would bring. Now here I was worried that I was getting too many stamps and would run out of clean pages in my passport whilst other pages were being "used up" with only one or two stamps each! Not that it's a big deal I suppose, but I was only going to Japan, and didn't particularly care about the stamp. I'd been to Japan before afterall, and hadn't even looked at the stamp I got that first time.
The fact that I was returning to Japan was another sign that things had changed for me. I used to love totting up the number of countries I'd been in, but after a while I realised the obvious: Riding the rails around Eastern Europe for a short holiday through however many borders, and spending six months in China... they can't be compared in any meaningful way, yet, only one of them meets the "plenty of passport stamps" criteria. In other words, it's meaningless. What's more surprising to me, was that it was Lunar New Year's vacation, and I was passing up the chance to see places I'd never been like China and Vietnam or Thailand, in order to return to a country I'd already visited. Actively turning down an opportunity to increase the count of countries visited? Had I totally lost the travelling plot? Not really. I'd just been fascinated by my first taste of Japan, and was itching to see more.
Some things still hadn't changed for me though. I'm still a scrooge, and still intent on getting the best possible deal on everything, still sacrificing my comforts to the high alter of Budget Travel. Japan was frighteningly expensive the last time I was there, but hell, it was company money, and who really cares. This time I was on my own funds, but I came prepared. A little research provided some surefire ways to cut the costs of eating out in Japan's notoriously pricey restaurants:
Cost: 0 yen.
Success Rate: 100% if applied properly - but strong will power required.
Secret: The human body in fit condition can last two weeks without food. Since you are only in Japan for seven days...
Cost: As low as you want.
Success rate: 100%
Secret: Buy cheap preserved food in cheaper country of departure and bring it with you to Japan. Bring enough dried fruit and peanuts etc. to last you for seven days.
Cost: 500-600 yen per meal (3 meals a day)
Success rate: 100%. There are rumours of people lasting three weeks on this method.
spam^H^H^H^Hramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, ramen for dinner, ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, ramen for dinner, ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, ramen for dinner, ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, ramen for dinner, ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch, ramen for dinner, ramen for breakfast, ramen for lunch.
Cost: 1500 yen per meal (three meals a day)
Success rate: 100% until you run out of yen.
Secret: Eat in an ordinary restraurant.
Cost: 4000 per meal (three meals a day)
Success rate: 100%
Secret: Eat in a good quality restraurant.
Cost: 10,000 yen per meal (three meals a day)
Success rate: 100%
Secret: Walk into any restraurant. Slam down 10,000 yen on the table and say "Feed me, you do the thinking for me, just make sure it is less than 10,000 yen."
Cost: 50,000 per meal (three meals a day).
Success rate: Where there is money there is no problem.
Secret: Walk into a five star hotel, go straight into the hotel restraurant, order steak and hamburger with Dr Pepper.
Method 8: Saving the best for last...
Success rate: 30%
Secret: Go into any shop and steal the merchandise. Allow police to arrest you and plead guilty. Free food and boarding at the local prison. Also get free (prison) culture experience, meet genuine Japanese citizens, experience down to earth Japanese customs and regulations. Experience group bonding, develop a respect for the Japanese law and legal system. Do something few ordinary foreign tourist in Japan manage to do and get to live and tell the tale. Extend your visa without lifting a finger. All paid for courtesy of the Japanese Government.
So, which method did I use? Well, to be honest, none of them. I could have eaten for less than I did, especially with a combination of the "missing meals" and "ramen 3 times a day" methods, but I said, ah, I'm only going to be in Japan once, and I'm not about to miss out on the food here. Goodbye to Zen and the art of Budget Travel, I was on a free-spending, toy-money trip, a much-needed break from school, and dammit, my stomach was out to enjoy itself. :-)
Not necessarily the best meal I had, but certainly the most fun was eating at a sushi restaurant. Not your ordinary tables and chairs here, no. Not even your traditional Japanese restaurant with mats on the floor and people sitting on their knees. Nope. This was the cultural phenomenon known as Kaiten Zushi. Imagine an american diner. Right down to the sassy waitress and the swivel chairs at the counter. Now imagine a conveyor belt plowing its way through the middle of this diner. :-) The conveyor belt contains various small dishes of sushi and you pick and choose as the delights roll past you. At the end you simply bring all your empty dishes up to the counter, count them up, and pay up. A great system, with only one minor drawback: What if you're prone to indecisivness and see something you want to try, but wait just that little too late to grab it off the belt? Then you have to wait until it cycles around the whole restaurant and gets back to you - hoping in the meantime that no other customer will have taken a fancy to your dish! Still, despite the initial difficulties, it's one of the cheapest, most enjoyable and language-free ways to eat in Japan.
It's by no means the weirdest food though. Raw fish may leave an oddly unsettled heavy feeling in your stomach afterwards, but sushi is pretty common in one form or another here in Korea and in the Western world generally. No one is too freaked out by it I'd think. That's because some of the more ... interesting... japanese foods have yet to make it onto the world stage.
Introducing: Sparrow-On-A-Stick .
There's a guy on the street with a basket of sparrows, and a barbecue. You pick the birds you want, he plucks them, grills them, adds some spice and sauces, and puts a stick up through them, handing them to you as a quick, cheap streetfood snack. All you have to do is to eat it. Not as easy as it sounds. Unfortunately the top of the "meat", the bit that immediately presents itself to your mouth, is the sparrow's head. *crunch* *crunch* *crunch* go the bones as you bite through Sparrow skull, and into brain. The main body has more meat, but is no less full of some brittle bones for all that. After a few bites you get through your initial revulsion, and the odd feeling of crushing bones, rather than spitting them out seems normal - or at least, do-able. :-)
That's another thing that surprised me about the Japanese. For some odd reason I never thought of them as a street-food kind of people. Elegant restaurants covered old-style tatami mats, beautifully decorated with delicately arranged flowers, places just so... yes, this is what I imagine. Street food? Sparrow-on-a-stick? No. They had lots of other streetfoods too though, including the "normal" stuff of burgers, fries, hotdogs etc.
What I loved most though, even more than my sparrows, was something truly bizzare - reencountering a street-food I'd first become addicted to in Central America. (not exactly Japan's closest relative). The "choco-banana" had been a Guateamalan invention as far as I was concerned, but here they were on sale in the streets and temples of Japan. Bananas, dipped in melted chocolate of various varieties, then covered in hundreds-and-thousands, or caramel, or whatever other little pleasure the street goddess of sweetness could dream up. :-) Yes, I'm a sucker for sweet things - you don't know the hell its been in nearly-dessert-less Korea. Japan was a way to rebalance the sugar deficit. Looking around for a nice restaurant to eat in on my last night, I came across a reference in the guidebook to one of the city's most famous restaurants / foodstores:
... They also offer a set dinner consisting entirely of what should be desserts, normally. At 25,000 yen, this is for the visitor who wants a thorough education in the delights of the traditional sweets....
As a dedicated teacher, who am I to stand in the way of a thorough education?
So yes, I didn't scrimp as much as I should have on food, but a couple of meals from the local supermarket, nuked courtesy of the microwave behind the counter had saved me a little money too, so I wasn't very concerned. What I really didn't mind spending money on though was the accommodation.
I stayed in what's known as ryokan. It's a traditional japanese inn. I'd stayed in a Western-style hotel the last time I was in Japan, and had been distinctly unimpressed with the size of the room given the amount they were charging. Yet, understanding the space restrictions in terms of the population density, such small living quarters makes sense - as much in Japan as it does in Korea. Still, as I opened the door from the corridor to my room, I was dreading just how cramped it was going to be. I couldn't have been more wrong. The hotel alone would have qualified the trip as worthwhile, even if I'd never seen another thing in the country.
In a room in a ryokan the walls and doors are sliding rice-paper affairs, with gorgeous wood-panelling frames. The sort of thing you expect a ninja's sword to rip through at any moment. The ninja never appears though, and instead you just take off your shoes in the entrance porch and stroll onto the tatami mat floors. These are the traditional floor-mats of Japan, and the standard by which apartment size is measured. I was staying in what was basically a nine-mat room, (huge), with another, say, three mats as the balcony. The place just gets better and better though...
You've changed into the obi-one-kinobe robe, you're relaxing over the second or third cup of green tea, sipped from a dainty little cup, and there's a knock on your door. A kimono-clad maid enters the room, and proceeds to make your bed. Or, rather, to arrange your room for sleeping. The long low table is moved to the side, and thick snug blankets are pulled from a recessed cupboard in the wall to form a makeshift bed on the floor. She bows goodbye, leaving you in your new "bedroom", and in a little bit of wonder and confusion too! :-) Just to make it intersting though, you can go down the corridor in your robe and slippers and enter the Japanese baths that the ryokan has to offer. At least for this the guidebook and a former english teacher in Japan had warned me - everyone bathes in the same water, but you're clean before you get in there. Down I go, nervous as hell, but hoping that my experiences in the Korean Baths had prepared me. OK, OK, act cool. Don't let them think you're a foolish foreigner... and whatever you do, please don't f*ck it up too badly. I pulled it off just fine though, and once you've got the hang of the ryokan, you might never want to leave.
On the last night though, I just had to. Not that the delights of ancient Japanese hospitality grew any less brilliant, but the lure of modern Japanese accommodation couldn't be missed. On the last night I stayed in what's known as a "Capsule Hotel".
It's designed for saki-swilling Japanese men who can't make it home after a heavy night on the town, and stay in this "hotel", in a capsule designed for sleeping, and not much more.... I'd heard about them, I'd read about them, and finally I was getting to try them.
I wasn't sure what to expect. The image in my head was that it'd be something like a movie morgue. Long rows of coffin-shaped boxes fitted out in attractive metallic grey. ;-) What I got was something more akin to a cheap science fiction movie from the 80s. You lie down in your capsule, and you're surrounded by little buttons and blinking lights, and bits of technology you may never understand. (Unless you can speak Japanese I guess.). Surrounded by the bright clenliness, and the comforting technology, as the capsule closed around me, I felt like I was aboard a deep-space vessel of exploration about to enter a three year hibernation sleep before we reached our faraway destination.
Only Japanese society could devise this surely. A room of one's own, yes, but it felt more like the storage tube for a torpedo before launch. :-)
And that's pretty much it for food and accommodation in Japan. What did I actually do there though? Well, I was in the city of Kyoto - the ancient capital of Japan for a thousand years. The guidebook's tagline reads: "Ten centuries in one city - find your yen for Zen." Ten centuries, one city, thirteen world heritage sites, and seven days to do it all? Yes I did indeed go sightseeing. There were temples, and stuff. But that might be a story for another day...