Saturday, December 12, 2009

THE WONDERFUL LAND OF AUS: Part 1-CANBERRA

LA-Auckland, Auckland-Sydney, Sydney tour...-Canberra
My neck is throbbing. Bags hang heavy and puffy beneath my slits I once called eyes, on top of which, there’s little to no eyeliner left. My lips are cracked, dry, nearly split. My stomach is bloated and I feel heavy and full. I’ve got a pounding headache, splitting through my temples on both sides; a slight bit of dizziness in the center of my brain. On top it all, I am not even sure as to what time or day it is, having just missed an entire day while traveling through the skies. I am slightly (that’s an understatement!) disoriented, confused and exhausted, and yet despite all of this, I can’t help but smile, becoming overly excited as the captain announces our descent into Sydney.
“This is so exciting!” Chenoa grins in pure bliss, and gazes out the window. This cheeriness awakens me even more, and we grin together like lovestruck thirteen year old girls at a Backstreet Boys concert. Chenoa holds her finger up to the window, pointing out a tiny white speck in the Sydney Harbor. She tells me what it is and after a good 2 minutes of squinting, trying to decipher the figure in the foreground, I am finally able to make it out. The white speck, reflecting the bright rays of sun cascading from the clear blue sky, is none other than the, you guessed it, The Sydney Opera House. Sometime in between gazing out the window and listening to the three Maori women (although I swear the mother looked like a man) to the left of me chew their gum like cows masticating on cud, we hit the floor, making a heavy bouncy, anything but smooth landing. I ignored it, just happy to know that after the last 16 hours of plane time, we would finally be getting off of the plane, out of the airport and into the fresh air, stepping into Sydney and the beautiful day it had portrayed through the open window panels of the plane.

This would all be, after we had gone through customs of course.


Now, Australian customs had been described to me, as some what of a scary venture. After waiting in long lines and receiving incriminating stares by serious, mean looking, large Australian custom guards, we would then have to declare our items. Our luggage would be searched and if we chose not to, it would be randomly searched anyway. To me, it sounded like a long, harsh, process I couldn’t wait to be over. I should have known, like always, nothing goes as my mind expects.


Customs was over in a breeze. The first line, where Chenoa and I should have been divided with her going to the Aussie citizen line and me going to the “other” section, I was lead to the Aussie line by a guard.

“But I need to go left.” I said to him, somewhat confused.

“Why?” he asked in a strong Aussie accent.

“Because I’m not an Australian citizen.”

“Well, today you are.” He responded, motioning me with a hand gesture towards the line with Chenoa and all of the other Australians.

“If you say so!” I thought to myself, still unsure as to what just happened.

Chenoa got through quickly, and then I was next, an adorably angry looking, no smiles woman sat behind the desk, gave me and my passport a quick stare down and then stamped me into Australia. We went to Carousel number 3 to pick up our large luggage and after 5 minutes, both of our bags had arrived. Now it was time for the scary part!


The last line before we were free. A woman at the end of the line asked us if we had anything to declare. Chenoa nodded telling her we had wood and candy and she sent us to the left line. A few minutes later we reached the front, where Chenoa handed a jolly older man her card of items being declared, explaining what she had and he smiled and motioned her to move on ahead where someone would check her bag. I smiled, handed him my card and told him I had the same. He once again motioned me to move on and I met up with Chenoa. Another man asked her what she had and she pulled out a tiny Russian Matroska doll I had given her and a bag of Hershey’s chocolate.


“I have the same thing.” I said to the man. He checked our forms and trusting what I was saying was the truth, or not giving a damn, he sent us both on our way. We were now on our way out! Walking with our things through the swarms of people in attempt to find both an ATM and Chenoa’s father; we seemed out of luck, not finding either. Walking further down the long pathway we finally came upon an ATM. Sadly I could not say the same for her father. Using my incredibly technologically savy and uncontrollable new phone, she called her father, who turns out was only a short minute and a half away, waiting for us with his companion, at the wrong exit. With money in hand and our ride now here, we were finally well on our way to get to Canberra, for a well deserved shower, or so we thought... turns out our ride had other plans!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

LIFE’S SIMPLE PLEASURES

It’s Friday, October 16, 2009. Spanish class had ended and I am hungry. After taking a nice walk, and passing nearly two small bars per street over a 45 minute span, all of them serving Bocadillos, my hunger grew stronger and I decided that I had to have one of these “sandwich” looking things.

A few days prior, while walking to the supermarket, I had passed a woman sitting outside of a bar/cafe, reading her newspaper, a fried egg sandwich sitting on a white plate in front of her, crisp bread, a butter glistening egg stuffed in between it, she took a bite and set it down, as she enjoyed her surroundings in complete relaxation. I wanted that; what ever that was.


Upon passing all of these bocadillo bars, I would look quickly at the menus, many of them containing pictures, and realized what she had, was none other than a typical spanish dish; the tortilla in between bread. After going home, grabbing my wallet and heading out in search of where I would enjoy my first bocadillo, I had a few places in mind. I looked out across the street to see some umbrellas and green chairs in a shady quiet spot, and knew that was where I would be enjoying myself for a few hours. I quickly looked at the picture menu outside and pondered for a millisecond as to whether I wanted the tortilla with potatoes or the tortilla francesa; just a plain omlette. I decided to go as simple as I possibly could.

I walked into the small (empty) bar, housing two tables, four chairs and five bar stools. A few legs of proscuitto were hung and scattered around. An older Spanish man, probably in his mid 60's came out of the back kitchen with a smile on his face,
happily greeting me . In the best of my terrible Spanish, I asked for the Bocadillo I had had my eye on for the last however many days, and he took my order, still smiling and asking me what I wanted to drink. Agua. He pulled out a bottle. I stood there for a second trying to think of how to ask him for sparkling.

“Um, como se dice
los otro typo di agua?” What did I just say? He looked at me a look of utter confusion upon his face as he scratched his head. “Uh um, con gassa?” I tried again.

“Oh, si gaza.” he said. Right, that one.

I went outside to sit, making myself comfy in a green pillow covered chair, until the man came out and walked to a different set of tables. There was apparently a separate bar next to him on the corner bend
that I hadn’t realized and I immediately got up and moved. He set a bottle of sparkling water in front of me, smiled some more and went back inside. I pulled out my book to read. He returned, within a few sentences, placing a small white plate with two large sandwiches in front of me. Half of a long crisp baguette had been rubbed down with tomatoes, filled with a perfectly cooked omelette and cut in half, for my enjoyment.

“Tortilla, no esta aqui.” he said as he put the plate down. What? but I ordered a tortilla, you just brought me a tortilla, what do you mean no tortilla here? I raised an eyebrow.

“Que es?” I asked
curious as to what I was eating then.

“Solo aqui, no alla.” He said aga
in, pointing to the bar next to him I had accidentally sat at. Oh right. They don’t have tortillas, only he did. I nodded and he walked back inside once again, continuing to smile.

I was not sure as
to how I would eat this much, expecting only one of these, but I would give it my best shot. A napkin lay under the sandwich and I remembered walking past street side eaters in Italy and Spain, seeing them using the napkin to hold the sandwich. I followed their example, wrapped the first half in the white paper napkin, picked it up, adored it with my eyes for a moment and then took a large bite. I now knew why the little man was so happy. I couldn’t help smiling from ear to ear, cheek to cheek, more and more with eat bite; I just couldn’t stop.

The pure deliciousness of it all was almost too much for me; It was exactly what I had wanted. But how, how could something this simple be so good one might ask? Because when you do something right, it turns out amazing, no matter how simple. Crispy crust chewy soft center french bread, rubbed with sweet raw tomato and covered in a fluffy, buttery, perfectly cooked omelette. At this moment, sitting in the small metal chair looking out at La Calle Comte D’Urgell in Barcelona, holding one of Bourdain’s books in one hand and my sandwich in the other, I couldn’t have been more content.

The wind blew, the streets were quiet with only the sound of passing traffic, the sun shown down; I had finally gotten what I wanted. With the first half down, I was getting full, but I mustered on, taking off a good portion of the bread from the second half of it, getting more buttery egg to bread ratio with each bite.

Finished. I looked down at my plate to see a crumpled na
pkin and a few pieces of ripped bread. After reading a few more pages of my book and enjoying the surroundings, I picked up my plate, brought it inside and got my check. I left a tip, which made the guy smile even more, and as I walked out with a "gracias", “Muchos Gracias!” was shouted out after me. I was still smiley.

Its after life’s simple pleasures, each and every time, that I began to think of how sometimes, I just love simplicity, and for me, these are life’s most simplest and most delicious food pleasures, always leaving me with a smiley on my face and a happy belly.
A jar of peanut butter
A crisp heirloom apple
Blueberries off the b
ush
La Ricotta
Sashimi off a j
ust killed fish
Slow cooked meat

Garbanzo beans
A chewy crispy chocolate chip cookie
Espresso in Italy
Handmade pasta
Anything baby... animals, or vegetables
Melon at the peak of its season with salty prosciutto
Just picked corn, roasted over a grill, covered after in butter
La buratta
Dumplings

Pico de gallo and hot, seconds out of the fryer, tortilla chips
A perfectly cooked egg
Warm bread and cold butter, melting into the light doughy middle

Good hazelnuts
Greek yogurt and honey
Fried plantains
Sweet cherry tomatoes straight off the vine
Chocolate chip ice cream
A good watermelon in the
hot summer months
Lobster and Clam bake back east
Arugula from the garden with olive oil, salt and parmigianno
Unpasturized Brie
Le Granite
Taco trucks and all of their marvelous deliciousness
Tres leches cake
Fresh shell fish, lightly sauteed, served in a large bowl with just olive oil, sea salt and parsley
peeling and picking with each
bite and soaking all of the juices up with crusty bread.
And what inspired this all... The bocadillo di la Tortilla Francesa

Here are just a few pictures...

La Ricotta!
















Best dumpling of my life














handmade noodles










Stewed garbanzo beans... and baby cuttlefish.. a combo of 2 of the best things.







Arugula, vine tomatoes, olive oil, fresh bread, and various cheeses... including La buratta, and La ricotta.








Fresh Uzbeki bread










Hand made pylmeni








Shrimp, shells on, olive oil, parsley, salt








raw and fresh


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Japan: Sapporo: Day 8, Tuesday August 4

“Do you really want to wake me up?” I asked myself as my tired eyes slightly squinted open. With a “crinkle, crinkle” of a plastic bag, a numerous amount of footsteps, a bunch of zippers being zipped and even more plastic bags being crinkled, I was angrily awoken at an all too early time for my sleepy self. Aside from this, the blinds were open and a bright sun shone through the window, directly into my vision. I clenched my eyelids shut, but it was of no use, as the sun got brighter and the girls noisier. Now they started to whisper while they crinkled their plastic bags. Finally, with the crinkle girls gone and the covers over my eyes, I figured I could sleep; yes, yes I could.

Just as it felt like I began to dose off (although it was actually much later), Jake came in to see if I was up and I responded with a bit of a groan and a mumble. He closed the door behind him as he left the room.

When we were both ready, we set out for a little walk to the Fish Market, working up a small appetite along the way, in preparation for what surprise the market held in store for us today. We narrowed it down to a few places, finally picking a crowded one right near awkward sushi man. Everyone looked happy as they munched on plates of raw fish and rice, giant grilled scallops or Hokkaido specialties like giant bowls of sea urchin and roe, and Hokkaido hairy crab. An old woman pointed inside and another woman led us to a table, not allowing us to sit up at the bar. After being seated and given a menu and cold green tea while we waited, we looked through all of the colorful pictures, both of us deciding on a mixed sea food bowl.

A few minutes later a good size bowl of delicious sea food was placed in front of us. Hot rice lay as a base and began to start to steam the raw sliced scallops, salmon and crab above it. A dish sat near by for soy sauce and wasabi and I dipped the slices of sea food into it. The salty soy with the sweet, fresh, fresh scallop was so good. We both sat there quietly as we devoured our bowls in a state of happiness like the rest of the eaters around us. Now and again we pointed out to each other how good it was, how fresh it was, how inexpensive it was compared to LA. It was probably our healthiest meal since I had arrived. Japan has got some great seafood.

After we paid our 700 yen each, the equivalent of about 7 U.S. dollars for a giant bowl of fish, we walked out of the restaurant, thanking the women as we left. The same old woman waiting at the entrance when we arrived, now looked at us and pointed to ice cream, trying to make more profit off of us Gaijin. Although I do love ice cream, I patted my stomach to show I was full and we walked out of the market. Jake had been telling me for a few days now that we might meet up with someone he knew who lived in Sapporo. On this day, we received a call from that friend and had about an hour to kill before meeting him at the East exit Saporro station. Since everything in Saporro was pretty much walkable and it would only take us at most, twenty minutes to get there, we had plenty of time, checking out a few shops as we frolicked along.

We stopped into one of Jake’s favorites and slowly becoming my new obsession, UNIQLO. Attracted to every bright color in sight, I made my way over to the leggings section, wanting to get some neon colors. Unfortunately there were none, so I debated for a good amount of time as to whether or not I really wanted to buy some, in the end not getting anything; a typical Jami move. Done looking around at all of the pretty colors, we scurried off to Sapporo station, entering at one entrance, and getting lost in an attempt to find the east exit. After a good 20 minutes of searching, we were finally close and as we looked around to figure out where we were, I heard a random Japanese guy calling out Jake’s name. Why was this man calling out to us? Jake went over and saluted him with a hand slap and introduced me to his friend Toru. Sometimes I am slow, what can I say, I take after my mother.

Toru was about six feet tall; a lengthy bean pole. He wore jeans and a striped polo shirt, black short hair atop his head and a sort of ambiguous expression upon his face (which sad to say, barely changed throughout the day). We wanted to go to the Sapporo Beer Factory and asked Toru if he thought it was good. He shrugged, having never even been there himself, he wasn’t sure what to say. He simply asked us if we were twenty, not knowing if they would card or not. Neither of us was twenty yet, nor did we care. Jake was almost positive it would be fine, as his age had never been a problem, since Japan was based on the trust system.

After a look at a map and a quick question to someone who worked there, Jake and Toru figured out the correct train to take and we ran over to it crowding in with the rest of the people. During the ride, Toru began talking about his grandmother, saying “she was gone.” I kind of looked at him not sure of what to say, and instead went with “I’m sorry.” He looked back at me and went, “That’s okay.” Then it was explained that she wasn’t dying, but just sort of mentally out of it. I asked if it was Alzheimer’s to which he started replying that she lives in Kyoto and he was only visiting. Apparently he thought I asked if he was with her all summer, so I asked again. He paused and started answering with some other response, until I explained what Alzheimer’s was and he shook his head and began talking of something else which grew into silence. We all just kind of stood there, not making eye contact and nodding. You could cut the awkwardness with a spoon. Needless to say I was glad when we finally got to our stop a mere five minutes later.

Outside of the station, we debated which way to go.Toru took the lead, pointing out the beer tower in clear view, meaning we were nearby. Ten minutes later, we were walking through a row of houses, not seeming to be heading on a route. When we hit a dead end and a rapidly barking dog, we headed back, finding another way to go. Well which way is that? you ask; well, through the mall of course.

The mall, near the exit of the station, was air conditioned and refreshing. Aside from an amusing dollar toy machine where I could get different color and expression faced pieces of poo, it led us almost directly to the beer factory. We walked through a tiny strip of park and finally we were there. Inside a sign clearly stated not to go in if you were under 20. We defied the trust and went in anyway.

The Japanese have a strange idea of how beer is made, or at least that’s what they project to their audience. The display case explaining the process of making beer is depicted by a magical beer world of little elves and a skinny Santa Claus looking man sitting on top of the foam of a large mug of beer, while cheery tunes play and lights flash. Basically the process of making beer is simple and magical. The waters around the beer plant are magically turned from blue, to a golden yellow and thus beer! It is then put into giant vats by the little elves and brought over to a happy land where everyone can enjoy it, and thus, beer! Wouldn’t it be great if the world really worked like that? I think this idea was thought up by a drunk man.

Another display case held little jars of different plants that were used to make beer. They sat with covers over them on top of a table, making it look as if you could open them and take a whiff of the substance inside. This was deceiving as they were glued shut and glued down to the table, providing great amusement for us to watch. Person after person came by trying to open the tiny containers, walking away from it disappointed; an urge still lurking to know what was really in there. We laughed watching the people try to pry the tops off and lift the containers from the table, as we had done ten minutes earlier.

Apparently this was the beer factory, a tiny beer museum. We walked down the stairs to the drinking section, along the way, passing a sign for “no running” where a man with 2 legs, one longer than the other, resembled slightly that of a swastika. Honestly, a little frightening to the Jews. Down at the bar, Jake bought himself a 3 beer sampling of the best Sapporo had to offer which came with a complimentary snack. Jake selected a tiny cheese from the pile of offerings, amongst other choices of crackers or onion flavored cheese, truly all things Japanese. We sat down to watch him drink, tasting a few as well. The cleanest lightest version was my favorite, not being much of a beer drinker.

After skimming the gift shop and finding a few weird items, too expensive for the average person to waste their money on, such as corn kitkats, melon jellies and beer caramels, we walked back, once again heading through the mall; checking out a few stores on the way. Of the few shops and stalls we saw in passing, the one that struck us all was a little shoe stand in the middle of the walkway housing “Holy Soles” shoes, a rip off of Crocs, with a Canadian maple leaf as their logo. When we nearly reached the end of this mall, Toru asked us if we wanted to go to another shopping area near by and we agreed, following him to what we thought was the train station.

We ended up in sort of dark stairway that crossed the street instead and walked for a while longer. In passing a conveni, we stopped to get snacks and drinks and then continued on. We reached the next shopping center in what seemed to be like forever; we had nearly walked back to Sapporo station. Inside the mall, some sort of show was going on; the audience was clapping for a young girl and she took a bow. A petite Japanese woman got on stage next and began speaking and then sat down at what appeared to be a normal piano, while a large screen behind her broadcasted it for everyone to see, and a small audience sat in black chairs in front of the small stage. She started playing, the noise came out sounding more electronic “videogame-esque” and then she began playing beats with her feet too on this crazy system they had set up.

After two songs, we moved on to look through the shops, stopping at nearly every t-shirt store they had to read the hilarious English printed on the shirts. The Japanese have this slight infatuation with clothing having words from the English language on them. The only problem is that it’s usually not correct, or in the least, makes absolutely no sense; therefore being a fine source of amusement for native English speakers like us. Most of them contained the word happy in big letters and why not?

At least an hour had gone by and we had gone through most of the shops, so it was on to the next. It took us twenty minutes to walk back to the center of town. We stopped into another department mall-esque seven story building, going up to the 5th floor where a store by the name of, THANK YOU MART awaited us. Skimming through the tees, Toru and I were summoned over to where Jake was standing to look up at a bright pink shirt saying: “The penis mightier than the sword”. It made complete sense as to what it was meant to say, however the lack of space between “pen” and “is” caused us all to rupture into a laughing fit and me to buy the shirt, plus a few more. Don’t judge, they were cheap! I bought four Ts for less than one normally costs and left with a smile; so thank you THANK YOU MART.

A few more shops later, we began to get hungry and walked to what appeared to be yet another five level shopping center. Toru was taking us to get the best ramen of which he knew. It was supposedly the first miso ramen shop of Sapporo, but I didn’t understand why it would be on the 4th floor of a department store. Toru shrugged and said once again how it was good. I tried to rephrase my question, where after a little help from Jake and a few more attempts, he told us it had moved. When we reached the restaurant, it was closed. We headed to Sapporo station to eat at one of its many restaurants instead.

Toru thought that of all of the Japanese restaurants around on the first floor, perhaps the Curry House on the 7th would be better, so we followed him. When we got there, we looked, most of it being Indian or Thai curry. Once again Toru shrugged saying he didn’t know and so we just decided to eat there. We were seated and ordered. As we sat there waiting, Toru randomly started smirking and quietly laughing to himself; Jake and I were unsure as to why. My Thai green curry came out first and sat on the table for at least twenty minutes before the others’ arrived. Then we ate, mostly in silence and when done, left to walk around more shops of the station.

I think all of us by this point were slightly less amused by shopping than when we started and it was getting later, so we headed down to the bottom of the station again.

“Do you want to go check out more downtown?” Toru asked.

“Sure.” Jake responded. Silence for a minute or so followed, as we all stood there waiting for Toru to lead while he sort of looked out into space.
“Well, actually, I need to catch my train.” Toru blurted out. A little strange, as he just asked if we wanted to go do something else. We sort of stood in a circle for a minute or two, saying good-byes, Toru shaking my hand and then Jake’s, kind of going in for a hug/handshake, but not. It was almost painful to watch and I couldn’t help but to start blurting out laughing. Then Jake sort of looked at him saying something like “Thanks this was fun”. We all just continued to stand there for a minute nodding our heads, me biting my tongue, until finally Toru departed.

With an “Okay, I should go” wave, he walked towards his train. When he was gone, I looked over at Jake and started cracking up once more. Toru is a sweet guy and a bit socially awkward. Jake and I left the station and walked down to Odori Park to see if anything was happening with the jazz, but it was over by the time we got there. We walked back to the hostel, finally passing the disappointing clock tower. On one hand, since we had expected to be disappointed, we weren’t disappointed, but on the other hand it was worse than expected, therefore disappointing what little hope I had of it being slightly better than bad. Overall it was basically a western style white house, almost southern church looking building, with a clock on it; it was pretty lame.

Back at the hostel, after a nice shower, I strutted over to the conveni in my pajamas with Jake for a late night waffle ice cream. When we got back we sat around chilling with our computers in the common room, eating creamy chocolaty crunchy goodness and listening to Jin’s latin jazz he had playing softly over his speakers. The Croatian’s entered later and we all talked together, mainly listening to Tin in amusement as he told some more of his comical stories of what their group had done earlier that day. A negative undertone always seemed to seep through in a playful, humorous manner. Finally I went up to bed, leaving the Croatian’s on their own. Up in the room, all of the girls slept peacefully, leaving the light on a low dim for me when I finally decided to come in. I, for some reason, always scared the Asian girls staying there, and they always seemed leave some sort of light on for me. I could never figure out why, but it was always easier to see. I shut the light off and hopped into bed once again; it was at least 2 a.m. before I fell asleep.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Japan: Day 7, Sapporo: Odori Park - Beer Festival, Monday August 3

Today, was a miraculous day, as I was up early or earlier than Jake. I headed downstairs to write before he woke up. Jin, the owner, was sitting there. Seeing as breakfast was served only until 9:30 and I had 3 minutes until that time, he offered me coffee, starting a fresh batch and bringing it to me. It was honestly some of the worst coffee I had ever had. A second later, he set a plate of little bread buns with raisins in them in front of me and I smiled. I was still stuffed from ramen and so I left them on the table, pretending I was eating them slowly. He sat back down and continued to do his thing, watching TV, as he simultaneously worked on his computer. He got up once more, leaving me alone in the room to watch Japanese television.

What was this? Commercial after commercial came on the screen, each one stranger than the previous. At one point the thing they were selling just reached such a level of weirdness, that I remember sitting there, by myself, an eyebrow raised. One in particular tried to spark an interest of a busy mom and a young children. A pizza topped with shrimp, could easily be eaten, especially as the crusts popped off. Rolled inside of those crusts was a little hotdog, bursting through the seams. I had never seen a “pizza” (if one could even call it that) like that in all of my time spent in italy.

It was around noon now and with Jake finally up, we decided to head over Odori Park, to see what was going on in that area and check out the TV tower. It was one subway stop over from ours of Susukino, but we weren’t sure as to how long of a walk that would be. Jake led the way as he has a good sense of direction and a short twenty minutes later we reached Odori Park; a large red tower at its beginning with the time on it. Before heading up to the TV tower, we walked through the park, seeing people gathered together sitting on the grass, little stalls set up with food and more importantly, the corn woman. Corn was supposed to be a Hokkaido specialty and so throughout the park, there would be tiny carts of different old women wearing an orange apron and bandana, selling boiled and grilled corn; I wanted one. After two blocks of the park, we found the Sapporo Beer Festival at beginning at the next block.

Each block was a different beer and in passing, girls and guys working for that particular company would yell out at us in excited, happy voices, letting us know that we were welcome to drink their beer. After walking the remains of the park and passing all of beer vendors, we returned back to the Sapporo beer section, so Jake could say he drank one in Saporro and sat down to enjoy some food as well; gyoza and chicken yakitori. You ordered food from one tent and paid, brought the ticket over to another and received your food. After you sat down, one person would come up to you to take your beer order, while another would come over and smile, and yet a third would bring you your beer. Talk about complicated service.

After finishing up with the Sapporo section, we headed over to another beer company, and then, to the TV tower. I bought myself some grilled corn on the way from the first little corn woman, old in her age, a chubby wrinkly face with droopy eyes, she handed me my grilled corn and smiled. It was delicious, and unsurprisingly, very salty. I enjoyed it immensely, especially as it was the first veggie of sort, that I had had in the past few days.

Now at the TV tower, we paid our fee and waited at the elevator to go up. It wasn’t coming so we ran up the stairs instead, unsure as to how long it would take us. Not long at all, as they ended on the 3rd floor, and we took an elevator all the way to the top, standing in there with the girl who worked the elevator and 3 excited children. The view was nice, but nothing spectacular. You could see all of tiny Sapporo and for the most part it was just buildings. A few minutes later, we believed we had seen most of the city, and descended to the bottom. This time, aside from the girl who worked the elevator, it was just us and as we moved slowly down, a cheery song in Japanese came on the speaker, explaining something about the Clock Tower. I wondered if the poor girl had to listen to this every time she went up and down and Jake asked her; we thought it might make her laugh. She just told him she had to listen to it a lot and went back to standing there quietly.

Back on ground level again, I grabbed a map and saw that there was a market close by; surely we had to check that out. Everything in Sapporo was close, as five minutes later we looked across the street to see stall after stall of Hokkaido specialties. Hairy crab on ice, uni roe, salmon row, and Hokkaido melons were set out at nearly every stand, along side some other sea foods and items. “I think this is the Fish Market.” Jake said, referring to the one we had been discussing but had yet to go to. “This is definitely the Fish Market.” He said once again. Besides fish and fruit, there were also a few tiny restaurants serving the fresh seafood and after touring the entire market and having a quick chat with a friendly vendor, we decided to pick a place to eat. It got down to two choices, one of them being a small wooden table place, their specialty bowl being that of uni and salmon roe, the other choice, a three seat sushi bar. Not having had sushi yet, we opted for that and sat down at the tiny hole in the wall bar, being sweetly greeted by an older sushi man and a woman who we appeared to be his wife. He was short, slightly balding and had a sort of innocent expression upon his face as he smiled at us.

We ordered salmon, tuna and fatty tuna; each piece tasting better and better. When we finished the three pieces, he asked if we wanted some sea urchin. Now I know you are supposed to say yes to what ever the sushi chef suggests and let him tantalize your tastebuds with the menu he decides on, as he knows best, but I don’t like sea urchin. Jake didn’t like sea urchin and neither of us really wanted to pay to eat something we didn’t like. We graciously declined and then he held up crab asking us if we wanted some of that perhaps? Jake in Japanese, told him yes and that crab was delicious. He started to work once again.

What happened next, neither Jake nor I understood and still cannot comprehend. He began fixing a large plate of sushi, egg, squid, shrimp and other fish, none of it being crab. Did he misunderstand us by chance? His wife took the plate from him and sat off to the side in the back, eating this plate. It had been about fifteen minutes by this point since we had finished our last piece of toro, and we sat there still waiting for our crab. Silence rang in the air and an awkward tension had built up. Still no more food had been placed in front of us. “Did you want anything else?” the sushi man asked. I guess not, as what we had wanted never came. We shook our heads and paid, leaving, what was without doubt, the most awkward sushi experience ever.

We left, now good on food for at least an hour and set off for a walk finding ourselves on yet another shopping street. In passing, I had to stop, as we were standing directly out in front of (pause, double take, YES!) a knife shop. I stood there for a moment, hovering over the glass, in a daze at all of the Japanes style knives staring right back at me. Oh god they were gorgeous.

“Can we go inside?!” I asked Jake, full of excitement. I imagined myself like a child, looking up with big wide eyes in anxious nerves, hoping the person would answer with a yes.

“Ya, of course.” was his response, and I ran in mouth agape at each passing knife case. If only I were a billionaire, then I could buy them all. Single edged blades, wooden handles, I could hear blade slicing through the flesh of some sort of meat, one swift motion, with smoothness and precision; I wanted a knife. As I passed the section of knives ranging in price from about 300 to 600 dollars, my mind came back to earth, and I realized that I would not be getting any knives, at least not that day. The next shop stop, we ended up in Uniqlo; a crazy bright, pretty inexpensive clothing store. I ended up purchasing more striped and pink things than I had in the last year, getting a pink striped beanie style hat and a pair of grey striped leggings.

Some time has passed by this point and we were both feeling tired, so we decided to head to the hostel to chill. We attempted to find Ramen Alley on our way back. With some searching, we found it; now knowing where it was, we could go back again later. We walked through the narrow “alley” getting lost in the smell of salty goodness and were drawn in by the large pictures on every door with sounds of slurping and sizzling coming from within. They all looked so good, how would we pick just one. After making a quick analysis of everyone of them, we decided the first one smelled the best. Noticing that it was stuffed with people at five in the afternoon, we knew that was going to be our first Ramen Alley ramen experience. After taking a break at the house, we set out for dinner, going straight to our soup stop.

Jake and I both ordered spicy miso ramen and an order of gyoza. “Hot-a, very hot-a, or very very hot-a”, the little old bad ass said to us in extremely quick tongue.

“Very Very hot-a!” we shouted. With that, the five foot tall, skinny little man with a bandana wrapped around his head and a gray goatee started heating his pan, putting in some oil and garlic that wafted out to us. In a separate skillet he sautéed some bean sprouts and the other girl working there began to fry our dumplings. It smelled absolutely amazing, even better than we had remembered that morning. As we waited in anticipation, a family came in and sat next to us; the kids looking just as ready to eat as Jake and I were. The man, in all of his ways, slightly reminiscent of Mr. Miyagi, handed us our bowls of neon red soup and a tiny plate of gyoza. By the smell of it, it would be the best ramen we were going to have so far.

It was. Hot in temperature, with a little fiery tickle through the back of your throat. The garlic was strong and the small chunks of fatty pork succulent and tender. The sautéed bean sprouts were still crunchy, but were a nice change from the usually raw addition and it was all topped with green onions. Salty, filling, carby, fatty goodness, all in one bowl. I slurped my noodles, adding a hard boiled egg to the bowl, as they had them sitting out for anyone to grab; YUM. The family next to us got their order now and I watched as the little boys schooled me on how to slurp. I laughed as every minute or so, the father would take a giant spoonful of broth from his son’s bowl, his own bowl still full with salty goodness.

Once again, I could not finish my bowl, however Jake took one for the team, helping me to get rid of the noodles left over in the giant vat of ramen. Both of us full, we thanked the man and headed over to Odori Park to check out if there was maybe something going on with the Jazz Festival. As we exited Ramen Alley, I looked through the back entrance of the ramen shop across from where we had just eaten. A pan of what appeared to be caramelized pork belly sat there, next to some bright green onions and I wanted to dive in. I took out my camera to get a picture of it, where the woman who worked there turned around. She was plump and cheery, smiling at me. I gestured for her to stand in the picture and she began shaking her head as she laughed. I nodded and finally, she stood with her pork, holding her chopsticks up instead of her fingers, in the peace sign. It was one of my favorite pictures so far and we waved to her as we walked away. I knew we had to go back.

Full bellies intact, we waddled our way over to Odori Park to check out the jazz scene. When we got there, music blasted at the perfect volume from inside of the performance area and we sat on the grass alongside a few other people to listen from the outside. The band was good, playing a few fast paced songs and then peacing out. As they walked out the back exit, an encore was called for and they went back in to play one more song. What was the point in them leaving the inside area, if they obviously knew they were going to go on once more? When they finished, we left too, walking up the park to the Beer Fest to see what was going on there.

It was 9:30 and already closing down. What kind of a beer festival closes before midnight? I mean ten at the latest. I bumped into a drunken Japanese business man and told him excuse me in Japanese. His response, “Oh scuse me! Hai, America.” Then he insisted on laughing as did his friends around him. That is when I realized why the Sapporo Beer Festival closes so early; because they have no alcohol tolerance and are all smashed out of their minds by this time of the night. Sad, but true and I noticed it even more as we continued to stroll through the park until reaching the end. Tables of red faced men and women, laughing at nothing in particular, yelling in loud voices and finishing up their glasses of beer. The soft spoken well mannered women and the straight laced business men of the afternoon were now completely different people. I liked them like this, wild beasts were somewhere inside of them and they came out when drunk.

Walking in the direction of the hostel now, we bumped into more drunken boys. As I passed one of them, he held his hand out as if for a high five and so, in my nature of never refusing a high five, I slapped his hand. Apparently this was means for starting a conversation, as he began questioning us in hard to understand English about where we were from and then high fiving us some more. His friend came over to get in on the action. Finally they decided it was time for them to leave and they both reached their hands out for a street style handshake hug thing. Then they went running off screaming along the streets. Once again, I love the drunken Japanese.

Back at the hostel after doing my usual nighttime routine of showering and coming down to chill on the couch with my computer, the croatians had arrived back and sat around with us. Tin providing amusing topics of conversation as usual and riveting us with descriptive stories of their day. After listening to enough stories for the day, I settled into bed around two a.m., making sure to make extra noise as I slipped under the noisy covers.

JAPAN: Ishiya Chocolate Factory: Sapporo, Day 6, Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Japanese girls left slightly early in the morning, quietly and quickly, allowing me to sleep a little longer. I was passed out, apparently catching up on sleep, as Jake came in around 12:30 to wake me up. I never sleep this long or this late, something has happened to me. Jetlag? lack of sleep? Mount Fuji fatigue? It must be Japan. I got ready and went downstairs. Jake was sitting there with his computer. When I passed, he looked up, told me he was kind of hungry and wondered if I was up for getting lunch. Ramen still sat heavy in my belly and even after a good fourteen hours, I was still not hungry. I smiled, telling him I was still full. If I didn’t want to eat, his solution, Lotteria.

We walked the short distance from the hostel to the main crowded street and then strolled down that, finally making our stop at Lotteria. A burger somehow sounds better when ordered in Japanese and a few minutes later, we walked out of there, Jake with his two burgers and mocha in hand and I with an iced coffee, sweetened with a tiny tub of gum syrup, whatever that was.

Walking back to the hostel now, we stopped at a Temple on route. Outside of it, a few little vendors sat around selling what looked like junk from a Japanese grandmother’s attic. Bowls, random figurines, waving cats, an old vintage stench filling the air with each passing step of the inanimate objects’ rotting corpses. My favorite of the few stands, was that of the ancient man. He sat around with his long white beard, smoking a cigarette, knives, swords and creepy dolls filled his tables. The first thing to catch my eye after passing the samurai sword, was a four inch girly doll, dressed in a bright pink dress, hanging from a red board by a rope tied around her neck. Was this a selling ploy? It got me to look, but I wanted to do the opposite of purchase, becoming slightly freaked out from this horrifying display. A banana hung by string in the opposite corner: another strange arrangement on his part. Both Jake and I, now slightly taken aback by this bizarre man’s presentation of his objects, left him be, heading now into the Temple.

A Buddha display stood out in front, as did a fountain with dragons on each end, a large tree with a rope artfully tied around it, some rocks and a few other statues. The Temple itself was a large ruby red colored building, decoratively painted with golds, blues and blacks, in a zen, ocean inspired theme. We walked up the few steps to get to the entrance and stopped as we hit the door, to read the large letters written on it. “PRAY IT FREELY,” the inside being just that.

As we entered, a young woman excitedly held the door for us, bowing her head to us smiling, as we followed her in. An old woman ran around lighting candles everywhere. A few men ranging in ages from 30’s to 80’s sat in seats, looking up at the center alter. The woman with whom we had followed in, lit a few candles and bent down in prayer as well. I watched the old woman lighting her candles and as she finished, she tried lighting a few sticks of incense, the sticks not responding in a very nice fashion, refusing to light. Neither of us wanting to stay for prayer. We left the Temple, stopping once more at the strange display stand, where now the doll was hanging from the rope by her feet and the banana was in front of a Buddha. I’ll call the man an eccentric.

By this point, I was feeling a bit hungry and so we stopped at the conveni across from the Temple in the middle of the city, right near our hostel. I got one onigiri and finally found some fruit, freaking out, buying two bananas wrapped together like a delicious fruit present. Back at the hostel, Jake called up the chocolate factory to see if it was open on a Sunday. Seeing as it was, we headed out shortly after taking the subway to the edge of town to go and get ourselves some Japanese chocolate.

After one switch and another half hour, we arrived at the last stop. Before the confusion began of trying to find the chocolate factory, we had to find the exit out of the station. As he looked around trying to finds signs for exit 5, Jake accidentally bumped into a blind man, repeatedly saying, “excuse me, sorry!” in Japanese. Whoops. After asking a friendly man selling shirts where we were to go, he pointed us over to one place, in the end leading us to a slight dead end, where we eventually found it on our own. Now outside, the question was, which way did we head to find the Ishiya Chocolate Factory.

We looked at a map. “I think it’s that way.” Jake said pointing that way. After a block or two of walking, unsure as to where we were going, Jake asked a tiny fragile looking old woman pushing a rusty cart if she by chance knew where this chocolate museum was. She smiled at him and pointed in the opposite direction. As she crossed the street, we asked the next person just to make sure, he, too, told us the same thing. Turning around and heading in the way they had pointed to us, we saw a large sign behind a building reading “CHOCOLATE FACTORY”. We were close.

We knew we had reached the building when a sweet smell of chocolate wafted through the surrounding air and large windows showed fantasy colorful cranks, as if mechanically working the chocolate. As we came up to the entrance, we knew we had arrived, as small children were running out in front of their families, happy and hyper from an obvious sugar high. Behind black gates, lay an enchanted garden filled with kids, more families, fountains and music.

Now inside, we could finally buy our tickets and we gave the man our 600 yen. In return,we received a survey and a chocolate passport (all of which were in Japanese) and a small piece of chocolate. I wondered if I should wait and eat it later, as I was sure we were going to get to sample a ton more chocolate along the tour, but Jake convinced me to eat it then and just have more later. Okay. A fine layer of chocolate rested between 2 thin wafers and we were both happy, eating what we had hoped would be the first of many pieces of chocolate.

We began our tour, following the route set by a few cat paws. The first room had small replicas of aztec islands and their people and boats from spain, coming to invade the islands and get the chocolate. There was also one of the strangest things I had ever seen, a still painting picture of some sort of early American political figure with a completely white face, onto which a tv image of a man and a moving mouth was cast, dubbed in Japanese. In his hand was a feather pen and paper, on which he was writing the holy bible. This was all very nice, but where was the chocolate? After a few pictures of vintage chocolate ads, the first racist depiction of the African race and some stairs, we walked through a chocolate tunnel, looking more like a cave dripping shit and made it to the factory part of the tour. Surely here we would get to eat some chocolate!

Large glass screens overlooked the factory line produced chocolates, and little men wearing white jumpsuits, glasses, face masks and shoe linings ran around frantically, sat atop machines, stirred things, making sure everything was running smoothly. One man poured cookie crumbs onto a plastic matting on the floor. Is it really wise to put food on the floor in front of the people who want to buy the product? Continuing on, a green screen with a picture of clouds and yet more racist depictions, this time of children, hung in the factory and as we stood in front of it, placed our image on the screen, and we took cheesy pictures in front of it. Yes, once again lovely, but honestly, what kind of chocolate factory doesn’t give chocolate samples along the way. There must be some coming up. I mean, there had to be.

Following the tour path we ended up at the chocolate lounge, a large room where we could get chocolate foods at an overpriced rate, while sitting at a window and watching the hourly “robot show”, a more advanced chuck E. Cheese-esque performance with chocolate chefs conducting a band of other chefs playing trumpet, while animals would come out and dance to the music the cooks were playing. We decided to see what else there was before settling down to eat anything. We found the chocolate quality inspection room, where the chocolate was tested. A man in a white jumpsuit looked through a microscope to make sure the particles were all delicious, as he jotted down notes. Making our way to the end of the chocolate section, we reached a small toy museum filled with old stuffed animals and vintage dolls, such as my personal favorite sighting, that of Michael Jackson. By this point, we were both slightly agitated that we had not gotten any more chocolate and headed back to the chocolate lounge.

We were seated by the usual overly sweet waitresses at a table by the window. Jake ordered a piece of chocolate cake and some sort of shake. As we sat and waited, the robot show had started again. All of the happy robotic animals came out to perform, the bear’s eyes blinking at different times and a seal was balancing on a giant ball while juggling. “That bunny is riding a cow!” Jake said as a cow rode out next in line, a bunny standing on his back. With that, his order came, a small piece of cake and a thick layered drink. The cake was good, but not worth the price and Jake described his drink as “pudding texture” while trying to slurp it up with a straw, since the spoon given to him was of a weird shape, making it even harder from which to eat. When he finished, we sat there joking about running without paying. It took the waitress so long to come over, that we actually ended up doing this, looking nervously around and sneaking out, Jake taking the receipt so no evidence remained.

It had nearly worked, however as we were close to exiting, Jake closed his eyes and grabbed his forehead, explaining how he had left his umbrella back at the table. I waited at the stairs while he went back to get it, hoping it wouldn’t take more than a minute. When two minutes had passed, I figured he was in deep shit. He came back a third minute later, a puzzled expression on his face. “The waitress just handed me this,” He said holding up his umbrella and his chocolate passport, “and smiled awkwardly as she was cleaning the table”. She didn’t ask for money or even what had happened, but handed him his things he had left behind and continued to clean the table; It is too easy to get away with things in Japan.

Looking around the rest of the chocolate shop, we both decided it was overpriced and not worth it to buy anything and headed back for the station. I was hungry and so was Jake, so we stopped at a market, getting a container of eel sushi and some grilled chicken skewers and having a picnic on a bench in the subway station before getting on and returning to the center of Saporro.

We chilled at the hostel for a bit and then went out for a walk, trying to find where we would eat ramen. One place we had seen the night before was closed and we couldn’t find Ramen Alley, so we settled for a crowded chinese ramen shop on the corner of one street. They sat us at a table and while we looked over the menu, somewhat lost, they brought us one translated into bad English to help us decide. I got miso ramen with fatty pork, while Jake opted for one that contained not only fatty pork, but shrimp and scallops as well. The men cooking the ramen were not quite as hard core bad ass as the night before, but when two large steamy bowls of beautiful ramen were presented before us, I couldn’t have cared what they looked like. Ah, pork fat, so soft and fatty and delicious you are. When Jake had finished, I was still not yet done, but I could not finish my bowl and so I sat there for a minute holding my full belly. Then we headed for the door.

We walked around a bit more trying to relieve ourselves of the salty bloat and fullness, before finally returning to the house. I showered and then after changing into my PJs, we walked to the nearby conveni to get some water. Back at the hostel we sat around using our computers before finally heading to bed around 1:30 a.m..

Friday, August 7, 2009

JAPAN - THE LAND OF THE SURREAL, SAPPORO, Day 5, Saturday, August 1, 2009


I am not ready. I am not ready to wake from my slumber. It is not time, it can’t be. After nearly twenty-six hours awake, five hours felt like a short nap to me and I was surely not even remotely close to wanting to get up from my sheet on the floor. However, I still had to finish preparing my bag for our next part of the journey and get ready, because, we had a plane to catch. I stood up, dizzy, my legs wobbly from left over Mount Fuji pain and the previous evening. Needless to say, this was not my best morning. I went into the bathroom, brushed my teeth and collected all of my things, coming out to see that Jake was awake. We both got everything ready to go and headed out, making our first quick stop at the near by 7-11. What, we had to get snacks!

Next was the subway station, which we took for a few stops until we could switch over to a local train to the airport. We got lucky, heading onto a kid filled train, decorated inside and out with Pokemon. With each passing stop, more and more families would crowd on, kids adrenalized by the near sight of a picture of Pikachu. A bit later, as we reached the airport, we looked out the window to see hoards and hoards of people waiting outside of it. Surely not everyone was just coming from a flight, were they?

The Pokemon train seemed to be the biggest thing to hit Nagoya lately. Families flocked the whole outer perimeter of the train, blocking what little space we had to get out, taking pictures of adorable children making peace signs in front of the red Pokemon covered train. As cute as it was, I was annoyed at the fact that I had to fight my way through what should have been a walk way because a bunch of people thought that a train was the new fucking Disneyland. It was cool, it wasn’t that exciting. Give me a break.

Finally through the crowds, reaching the beginning of the airport, we went to stop over at another conveni for some other stuff. As we were about to step in, Miia, Alex, Hee Jung, and Lauren came out, all with sad faces, as they had just dropped Tyler off and said their final goodbyes. We talked to them for a few minutes, before deciding we had to go. We headed over to check our bags, go through security and find our gate. Looking through the vast open window overlooking the planes, we saw yet another attraction to the people of Nagoya, a Pokemon plane. Looking up at a gate overlooking the airport, a swarm of people looking like colorful ants in the distance, stood behind the gate, flashes going off as they took picture after picture of the Pokemon plane. With all of the things Japan has to offer, Pokemon decorated methods of transportation seem to take the prize for most interesting attractions.

After what seemed like forever, waiting around our gate for our plane to board, it finally started, boarding first those with handicaps, then the rich and finally us regular folk. I had planned to write on the hour or so we had on the plane, but exhaustion set in and seeing as most of the plane was empty and there was a whole row free in front of us, I moved up one row and sprawled out along the empty seats, waking up about an hour later, as the stewardess apologized for asking me to put my seat belt on and bring my chair to the upright position. I moved back next to Jake and fell asleep again, waking up as the plane came to a halt on the ground. We had reached Saporro.

We had to take a local train into the city and then the metro close to our hostel. After doing so, we followed instructions on how to get there from the subway exit. Apparently we were having some trouble. Streets in Japan don’t have names, so the directions given were estimate times, lengths and descriptions. We walked left out of the station, then made a left a few blocks up at the “t-intersection” which at the first corner we made a right, followed it past the tabaccho and drink vending machine and made a left at the first corner, where supposedly the second house would be the hostel.

“Second house? or second building?” I asked Jake.
“Uhh” was his response.

“Do you have the name?” I questioned?

“I could get it if I had internet.” he said. “I think this is it.” He said, pointing to the first house, second building on the left side of the street. “I know this is it.” He rang the door bell, where at first no one answered. He rang it again, where a minute later a man came to the door holding a baby. He asked the man in Japanese if this was a hostel to which the slightly shocked man shook his head. “OKAY!” Jake responded completely in an American tone. “That was not the hostel.” He said as he shut the glass door behind him and came down to meet me with the bags.

We walked down the remainder of the short street, looking around confused as ever, trying to figure out where we had gone wrong. We passed a few guys at work outside of a bottling plant, and Jake went up to one of the guys and asked for help in his best Japanese, getting a little stuck with words to explain where we needed to go, to which the man told him,

“Engrish okay!” We smiled at him, and I took out the version of directions I had jotted down in messy shortened handwriting. He scratched his head while he stood there thinking for a second and asked for the name, which we didn’t know. He continued to ponder, asking us questions which we had no idea of the answers. Then told us he’d be right back, heading inside and coming out with a map of the area he had printed out and trying to decipher it with us. Jake had just finished telling me about his last hostel experience saying it wasn’t uncommon for a person to stop everything they were doing and walk you to your destination. A second later, the guy summoned for us to follow him, leading us back to where we had been earlier. When we got to the vending machines, instead of continuing on to the corner we had turned at, we were supposed to have turned immediately, heading into an alley type place, where low and behind, Time Peace Apartments waited for us as the 2nd house on the street. We thanked the guy tremendously, who bowed and walked back to his job.

After knocking on the door, and being let in, we took off our shoes and sat for a second while Jake filled out the paperwork. Then we were brought up to our rooms, divided by the sexes. The girls room was a bit darker, more squished and square, with six bunk beds lining the walls. The boys was a bit more spacious, brighter, a rectangular layout; somewhat more appealing to me. No one else was in the hostel besides the two of us and I wondered why we couldn’t just share a room. A taxi pulled up to the front of the hostel where three very girly japanese girls got out and came inside, sitting quietly all texting on their cell phones as they waited to be shown their room. When I went upstairs to my room again, a stairway had been pulled down from the ceiling exposing another room, where the three girls would stay. This cut down the space even more so of the room. I wanted even more to switch, however moving over to Jake’s empty spacious bright quarters, would not be possible.

A French couple sat in the common area, chilling out, the boy introducing new music to the proprietor of the hostel. They didn’t speak to us and we to them. As we sat around for a little while, relaxing before going out to explore the town at night, another traveler had arrived. He was the first to break the ice, tottering in slowly, bowing down his head a bit and speaking,“I am Robin, from Hong Kong!” smiling as he said this. We all waved and introduced ourselves, a slight conversation forming from the small group sitting in living room. It was getting later and Jake and I were ready to go out for some food. Robin asked if any of us had eaten yet, to which we replied no. I think he was hinting as to if he could eat in a group with us. I snuck a note over to Jake asking what he wanted to do. His response, it was my call. I looked over at him asking with my eyes for some sort of feeling on the matter. He just kind of shrugged and I knew we both had the same opinion. As nice as we both were and as nice as Robin was, he was slightly socially awkward and after a long day, we both just wanted to go out, do what we wanted and have a fun time.

Miso ramen is one of the specialties of Saporro and the owner of the hostel told us about a place called Miso Alley, in which a tiny little street was lined completely in ramen shops. The French couple had suggested a street in the center of town, a short walk away with lots of activities, restaurants and bright lights. Sounded good to us, so we headed out in that direction, attempting to put both of our slightly okay senses of direction together to find where we needed to go. In the end, I just followed Jake.

The fifteen minute estimation time we had been told from hostel to flashing light street was wrong, as we arrived there a good five minutes later. Before picking where we wanted to go for dinner, we walked around, passing a tiny ramen shop with its logo being a large bowl of ramen with a cock sitting in it and eating it. Ramen alley wasn’t anywhere to be found in the direction we were going and the street seemed to be getting darker and quieter, so we turned around and headed in the other direction hoping still to find what sounded like a magical hidden world of ramen.

After walking a little longer, passing a many more ramen bars, flashing lights, hostess clubs and japanese boy-band look-a-likes hanging out on the street, we had still not found ramen alley. Instead, we settled for a crowded ramen bar along the main drag. Walking in through the drab white curtain with japanese congee written on it, we were greeted by three tough looking guys behind the bar and took a seat in front of them. The men were all dressed in black, tying bandanas around their heads and looked like a trio of hard core bad ass ramen makers. They all had hardened expressions upon their faces and most of them had facial hair of some sort whether a mustache or a goatee.

I looked around unsure as to what I wanted; the pictures on the menu all looked delicious. I pointed to a woman next to me and Jake asked the man what she was eating; I wanted that one. When we gave them our orders, they yelled it to each other and began making it, throwing different items and stocks into a large pan and shaking it all about, watching nothing in particular as they went about their work. Experts in their craft, just looking at them I knew they could do this in their sleep. Five minutes later, an order of goyoza and two ramens arrived in front of us; both of ours containing lots and lots of fatty pork.

Jakes was sliced thin and waded below the soy broth. Mine was thick, tender and caramelized, sitting atop everything. I ripped a piece off with my chopsticks getting a bite of layers of fat and meat, falling apart in my mouth with barely any chewing. If anyone knows how to cook fatty meat and get me to eat it, it’s the Japanese. After getting half way down my bowl, I was feeling the fullness begin to set in and after a little more I was stuffed like a bird on Christmas. Jake helped me finish the rest. We paid our tab and left, getting a loud thank you as well from the crew. We found ourselves back on the bright main street once again.

We walked into tourist shops and then down another long covered street, where banners and large blow up animals with protruding crotches hung. It was filled with people walking around and every five feet one could see a different group of kids sitting around in circles playing guitars and singing together. One band in particular had CDs for sale and a large group of girls sitting around them (by large I mean about eight). The girls would look up at the appealing musicians with ear to ear grins and do the white girl clap, on the wrong beat, off beat, nearly every time. It was a sight for rhythmic clappers like myself, to watch.

Both of us were getting tired now, we decided to walk home slowly, stopping first at a conveni. While in there a small child was crying and Jake bust out with, “Don’t cry little kid, it’s only a 7-11”. By this point we were both slightly loopy from lack of sleep in the last three days and this struck us as one of the most hilarious things we had heard in a while. We walked out of the store repeating this line and laughing hysterically. Just as we started to reach nearer to the hostel and calm ourselves, Jake came out with another line, making us start in hysterics once again.

“This is completely random and has nothing to do with anything, but did you know Osaka is completely filled with cats.” We tried to get ourselves a bit quieter and then entered the house, where we sat on the couch for a while using our computers. A bit later a group of young Croatian boys arrived, where the hostel man got out the paperwork and they sat around waiting to be led to their rooms. They looked tired, hot and worn and followed the man upstairs with their backpacks, staying there for a while. Jake went up to bed a bit later and I stayed up writing. One of the Croatian guys came down to use the shower, but seeing as it was in use, he took a seat next to me on the couch and began to start a conversation or for me it felt like a strange venting session. He talked about the last thirteen hours on the train. The thirty minute naps they would take before being woken up. How “fucking hot” it was in Tokyo. How everyone here speaks a strange language called Japanese. How it was impossible to flirt with girls since he couldn’t speak to them... and so on. I would nod every few words and smile, laughing slightly to myself as he sat there, making expressive gestures with his arms while silly facial expressions came out in descriptions. Finally I was worn and said goodnight, going up to my girl filled room to go to sleep.

The girls left the light on for me, how sweet that was as it was about four hours later that I arrived in the room, than when they had first headed up to bed. The covers were impossible for me to figure out, as they were all zippers and snaps, and so I unzipped one like a sleeping bag and hopped into it throwing the rest on top of me, eventually throwing them all off of me, feeling overheated. Super exhausted, and resting my head on not a bean pillow, I fell asleep very soon after I closed my eyes.

JAPAN - THE LAND OF THE SURREAL: Mt Fuji Day 4, Friday July 31

When the alarm went off at midnight and a half, we all stirred and groaned. I reached for the light switch, making us all groan more. We got our things together and headed outside, passing the resting climbers on the way. We stopped quickly at the dank reeking bathroom for which we refused to pay, as the money was supposed to go to its maintenance and seeing how badly it stunk, that was obviously not where it was going. We all put some money together to buy a flashlight and headed up a pretty steep climb with two somewhat dull flashlights. We had no idea what we were doing.

Before we began with the climbing, we just kind of stood there and watched the sky. We all agreed it was one of the most incredible views of a night sky we had ever witnessed. It was close to pitch black and you could see more stars than ever imaginable, glistening in the dark sky, twinkling and shooting from one end to the next. We all ooh’d and ahh’d before remembering what we came outside to do; climb more.

The first step was steep and hard to see and it only got worse the higher we climbed. We took it extremely slow, following one after another, shining the light as the next person went, then letting the leader go ahead as we stayed still, repeating the process. We had no extra oxygen and we were all beginning to feel it, getting lightheaded or out of breathe with each passing step. At some sections it became extremely dark and hard to balance. The stepping was difficult to get and one couldn’t see where they were going. Strangely enough, I was not scared. It was an exhilarating thing for me and I was enjoying the thrill of it. I can’t say the same for the others, as when we got to the next flat terrain in the midst of the 7th summit, they were speaking of how of terrifying that was. We had to decide whether or not we would continue to climb and while most of the group said no, Jake and I opted to continue to go on, convincing the group for a second that it might be ok. Jake bought a flashlight from a tiny store at the resting point and when he came back out with it, the group began discussing how stupid what we just did actually was and so we decided to go back down instead; probably the smartest choice our sleep/oxygen deprived selves could do. Taking it even slower back down the steep decline, Tyler in the lead, we finally made it back to the level where our sleep accommodations were and asked if we could possibly re-enter the room we had left, at least for another few hours. We slept in there, or at least tried to, with all of the snoring going on from the Japanese men next door, for about another three hours, from 1:30-4:15 a.m., waking up to go see the sunrise. When the alarm went off again, it was like deja vous, all of us groaning in agony and even more so when I cheerfully flicked on the light once more. Everyone loves a happy morning person when they’re miserable don’t they?

After a few pictures and a view of one of the most spectacular sunrises ever, it was time to climb more. You could tell we had been climbing for a while now, as when we started the day before, the stairs were the worst thing we could possibly have seen. Now after a bit of rocky steep climbing, we all threw our hands up in praise when steps appeared. We got through it pretty easily this time, realizing truly how dumb we were for doing this without oxygen or light during the dark, dark night and powered through it, reaching the next break spot slightly out of breathe. We took a long, long pause and followed a group up the next part, moving extremely slowly behind the twenty-four older people in front of us. Surely if these 80 year old women could do it, we could too? When we reached the next break section, we rested for a little longer, following yet another group up, taking it really really slowly as we were all starting to lose breath and become extremely light headed. It was how it had to be though, as none of us were spending the equivalent of 12 dollars for a small can of oxygen. We were tough, we could do it without it.

When we made it to the next break point, we just sort of stood there hoping we had made it to where we needed to be to get to the “turn around” trail. We were there, at top of the 7th summit and we could finally relax for a second, knowing we had gotten as far as we were going to get with our lack of supplies and planning. We stood there, taking it all in, watching as about twenty old women passed us as they continued up to the 8th summit and just sort of laughed in amusement. We pondered now where the path to get down was, seeing something that looked like a dirt path down, with a sign near it saying “no entrance”. Taka asked around and as we waited for him, we all stood near the trail, which was close to the bathrooms, inhaling a not so pleasant stench and getting bombarded with annoying little flying insects. Taka came back a few minutes later with another guy, telling us this was the way. We headed down the “tractor path” a slippery rocky dirt roadway. I was the first one to slip and fall, landing straight on my ass. I just sat there for a minute laughing and trying to figure out what just happened. After some practice we figured out the easiest way down was a sort of sideways penguin waddle, although that didn’t stop Tyler or Jake from falling once as well. As we reached the end of the dirt path, we hit the zig zag stairs that we had hated the day before and began smiling endlessly, knowing we were nearing the finish.

We saw an American boy from the good old midwest State of Minnesota, don’t ya know, in passing and he asked us if we knew where the 5th summit was. We told him we were heading that way and he walked with us, making some pretty awkward conversation before heading out on his own as we were too slow for him.

A little while later, we had made it to the flat terrain that we were in the day before, going up the part we had gone down yesterday, when we argued that we had to go down to go up, thus come up to go down on the way back. We were now living that out. Finally, by 7:30 that morning, we reached the 5th summit where we all sort of crumbled ourselves down onto the rock floor and lay there. We were tired, hungry and ready to go, although we had four hours left until we had to get to our bus. As we sat there, the smell from a nearby yakisoba stand wafted over to us and we ended up getting noodles at 8 in the morning and some meat on skewers.

As we sat down to eat, biting into a piece of meat, we realized it was almost entirely fat, carmelized, sauce covered, deliciousness, but fat none the less. Basically all of the calories we had burned over the last 2 days of climbing went out the window as we enjoyed that small portion of sweet, sweet beef fat with tiny chunks of meat. Exhausted from the food, the climb and the lack of sleep, we lay there on the cold rock floor trying to sleep. While Jake, Oksun and Taka seemed to have no problem, I wasn’t having much of it and neither was Lauren, so we went to look at all of the little shops around, attempting to pass the time.

We went into one shop, looking at their different objects and comparing prices. Both of us debated as to whether or not we wanted to spend 900 yen on a towel of a giesha where, when soaked in hot water the clothes came off of the girl. We passed tons of normal items labeled with “Mt Fuji” on them and with raised prices. There were a lot of little cell phone chains, post cards, t-shirts and all of the usual. Entering the next shop, it contained the same things with different prices. We figured the shop from the first day had the most variety with the lowest prices and after debating for a good 45 minutes over which Mount Fuji cell phone charm I wanted, I picked the same as Lauren, a blue Mt Fuji, I named Mr. Snuggles and his cloud friend Boogie. Then we walked through the shop some more, random cake items in cute Fuji boxes and even touristy items having absolutely nothing in the slightest to do with Fuji, like a naked anime girl, tubs of pudding acting as her boobs; strange shit they’ve got. After we had had enough, we met up with the group; half of whom continued to sleep. Jake passed out against a rock, Oksun on top of a rock and Taka lay passed out on the floor. Tyler sat there amused as a group of Japanese came by to take a picture of the sleeping gang.

By this point it was about ten; the time getting closer to boarding the bus. The rain began to drizzle down on us and it grew colder, so we went into the gift shop once more and then waited outside on the steps. We began to talk about how odd the whole tour seemed and what if we had just left our group and they were looking for us the whole time. Everything had seemed odd the day before as when we got to our hostel none of our group was there and we never seemed to see anyone else from our bus. Jake questioned as to whether or not we would get in trouble from the group leader, perhaps they had been searching frantically for us up on the cold rocky terrain of Mount Fuji. Tyler saw the ambiguous bus guide walking heavily around and Taka went to ask him about the bus. We weren’t in trouble, in fact most likely he was probably glad to get rid of the loud Americans and so we walked slowly over to the bus, boarding it around 11:15, forty-five minutes earlier than we were supposed to leave. Turns out we weren’t the latest this time, as the last boarded around 12:30, when we finally departed.

I fell asleep, waking up about a half hour later, to see a giant roller coaster outside of my window and to hear an announcement that we had almost arrived at the bathhouse. I was not entirely too excited about this. I am not a nudey kind of person and the fact that you are not allowed into the waters with anything on was not of relaxing thought to me. The bus pulled into a parking lot and we had an hour to do our spa thing and then get lunch. Everyone unloaded in a frantic frenzy and we got off last, having some patience.

The boys went into their part of the spa, while Lauren and I entered the door next to it, going into the girls section. All of the sudden I looked around to see a bunch of naked Japanese women running around in all directions; what have I gotten myself into?! I followed Lauren’s lead, leaving my clothes at my locker and wrapping myself in the towel I brought, going over to the “washing area” where we bathed ourselves clean while sitting on a stool and only after doing so, could we enter the hot waters. There were little pools inside, and a nice rocky one outside, so we chose to go into that one. I sat there bundling myself up into a seated fetal position attempting to cover whatever I could, while everyone else seemed not to have a care in the world. Lauren and I laughed as we could hear Jake’s distinctive voice from the boy’s side through the walls. After about 10 minutes of sitting in the what seemed to be getting hotter by the minute waters, we decided it was enough and got out to change, meeting the boys and Oksun in the front a few minutes later. We were short on time to get food from the restaurant in the spa, so we ran to the 99 yen store next door, which didn’t have too big of a variety. I skipped out knowing we would stop a few minutes later anyway and when we got back on the bus, I opened a soyjoy bar while the others snacked on the cookies and chips they bought there.

The spa had been in the opposite direction from Mt Fuji and the return route, so we had an extra forty-five minutes to drive now to get back on track. Once we were there, we stopped at the next convenient store/bathroom/snack stand stop so we could all go about our business for fifteen minutes. I bought an onigiri and chicken skewers and couldn’t have been happier, making it back onto the bus as the second to last person. The bus stopped a few more times in the next four hours, until finally we made it to the subway station, where forty-five minutes later we finally got home. It was about eight p.m by this time and we planned to meet in the common area fifteen minutes later to go for dinner.

The six Purple Monkeys met up once again, all of us hungry for dinner, going to Tyler’s last night choice of Turkish food. We all ordered something I was unsure of as it was either written in Turkish or Japanese. Shortly thereafter, six plates came out with heaps and heaps of meat on it. Underneath the meat lay pita that had been soaked in sauce and sliced tomatoes lay on top of everything. When we finished that, the chef sent out three little eggplants cut in half stuffed with peppers and onions. Needless to say we were full and walked home to do some packing before all meeting up at 11 for karaoke.

Jake put the laundry into the washing machine and we sat around the room for a while packing up everything that we needed for the next three weeks. At 11, we went out to the common area to see a large group of about thirteen standing there, a few more to join us later. There were too many of us to get everyone into one room at the car wash place, so we headed to another place instead, where we payed a fixed price to sing for as long as we wanted until six in the morning. As we walked, I talked to Hitome a Japanese student there and then we all stopped at a conveni so everyone could get their alcohol fix. I was too tired and would not be able to get up peacefully the next day if I drank, so I stuck with a diet coke that came with a phone charm instead.

Finally getting to the karaoke place, we all crammed into a small room, this one having a stage for singing. We sat around, everyone cracking open their cans of alcohol and chatting amongst themselves as Tyler started the singing off with a Kelly Clarkson power ballad. Everyone else put in their lists of songs as fast as they could. Tambourines were given out as well; Oksun and Hee Jung, the two korean girls rocked the beat. Jake and Alex sang a variety of their classics including some Prince, Radiohead and others; their voices only growing in strength as they continued to drink. Alex sang “Last Christmas”. Miia and Tyler performed duets. Lauren and I did a series of raps and a bad version of Gasolina. The Korean girls did adorable Korean songs talking about “sweet little kitties” and “girly girly girly girly girls”. Jake described them as “painfully cute”. Taka took all the glory with his insane talent singing both Neyo and Japanese favorites. We stayed there until I looked at one of the girls watches where it read 3:30.

“Holy shit!” I yelled. She laughed at my cursing. After the Purple Monkeys sang their final song together “Ain’t no Mountain High Enough”, Jake said his final goodbyes to some and a room full of people waved and screamed, posing for what could quite possibly be one of the greatest pictures ever.

We made it back by around 4:30, got the laundry, packed everything up, and went to bed by five a.m., just so we could get up a few hours later.