It has been a long and eventful journey for sure, possibly more so than New Zealand despite covering roughly the same amount of time. Either way, it's no time to look back on the places I've been to and the things I have experienced in…
Once again, I came with the intention of travelling all around the country, and visiting every region of Japan, and once again, I was able to succeed. I only narrowly grazed Shikoku, however, and wish I could have stayed there longer and seen more of the Blue Country, but at least I got to spend a total of eight days there.
After that, my next-shortest stay in on region was a combined 24 day in Kansai, followed by a combined 28 days in Chuugoku. My total stays in all remaining regions exceeded a month, with my longest combined total stay by far being in the Kanto region at a whopping three months.
This time around, the majority of my travels in the country was done by train, followed by ship, plane, car, and lastly bus. Altogether, the amount of kilometres I've travelled on this trip is over 9000!!!!! (approximately 10,200km to be exact). That’s over 50% more than in New Zealand, and that amount of mileage would get you comfortably from Munich to Daressalam, with a number of side trips along the way.
On top of that, there's also a total of 1,200km of strays, 580km of bike rides, and 130km of dogwalks to add up to over 1,900km of unmotorized transport around the country (plus an undocumented amount of daily routine strays that might add another 10% or so) – which is about 20% more than I had in New Zealand ¬– as well as over 21,500m of climbs – about 25% more than New Zealand. For reference, that would amount to an enjoyable walk from Munich to St. Petersburg while climbing a vertical altitude difference exceeding that between the Challenger Deep of Marianna Trench and Mt. Everest. Or in reference to Japan, I just covered the entire length of Honshu crossed over to Kyushu in the south across the bridge between Shimonoseki and Kitakyushu, and then continued all the way down to Kagoshima. Or if you prefer, I could have completed the Shikoku Pilgrimage about 1.7 times.
My longest single bike ride in both time and distance should also be my first: The Watanoha Exploration Ride in Asahaikawa with 66km and 9 hours.
I tried to exceed this one time with the Odyssey Ride in Daisen, but due to unforeseen circumstances, that one was split in half (see Book II ~ Chapter 13 ~ Daring Daisen). Had it remained one as one, I would have passed the psychologically important 100km mark that day with a total of 111km and a duration of 13,5 hours (which would probably have meant a return after dark since this was shortly before the autumn equinox).
Befittingly, my longest stray in terms of distance was also my last: The Grand Finale Tokyo/Kawasaki Stray at 31km, whereas my longest stray in terms of duration was the Daimonjiyama Reverse Long Stray in Kyoto at 9.5 hours.
So much for getting around the country. With all my strays and rides in New Zealand and Japan, I have now covered enough distance to cross all of Europe lengthwise and scale a fair number of mountains along the way. That's probably enough physical activity for a lifetime. Time to sit back and talk about…
Just like New Zealand, Japan is a relatively long country, stretching from 45.5°N to 24.1°N while simultaneously having only very few spots that are more than 100km away from the Ocean. In comparison with Europe, Africa and America, Japan's northernmost point lies roughly on par with Venice and Montreal, while the equivalent of its southernmost reaches are Medina and Key West respectively. Altogether, that makes Japan about 5° longer than New Zealand, while simultaneously also putting it about 5° closer to the equator.
This relative proximity to the equator – combined with the fact that the Japanese Sea to the west makes for a nice heat battery and the fact that there's some considerable mountains between Japan and the nearest pole makes the temperatures a good deal more agreeable than in New Zealand. Also, once again I was able to balance the most extreme potential temperatures by counter-seasonal travel, making sure to go to Hokkaido in early summer and Okinawa in early winter. As a result, I should experience my peak temperatures in Appi-Kogen and Yudanaka (which was during the inexorable heat wave that caused death and destruction throughout the country), and the fiercest temperature drop on my way from Tokashiki to Matsuyama, where my northbound travels coincided with a southbound cold front to combine into a solid daily 5° temperature drop for 5 days straight.
Just like in New Zealand, houses in Japan are built in a typical lightweight construction that is cheap and easy to rebuild after your choice of natural disaster razes it to the ground (we have earthquakes, typhoons, volcanic eruptions and floods on offer, among others), meaning they are about as well insulated as a roman forum However, unlike New Zealand, there are two circumstances that make this a whole lot more bearable:
- The temperatures in Japan are too hot more often than they are too cold.
- Most Japanese houses have one of these… in each room.
Also, thanks to a stronger ozone layer over here, I should be spared any major sunburns here, with the exception of that one time on Sado where I forgot my sunscreen at the hotel (see Book II ~ Chapter 10 ~ Sadistic Sightseeing). And even then what I contracted was only about half as bad as that one time in Christchurch (see Book I ~ Chapter 12 ~ Christchurchly Second).
Anyway, so much for the climate. Now let me give you a short rundown of the…
Places I've Been To
Chapters 2, 3 & 4 ~ Tokyo
7-Feb-2018 – 8-May-2018
Total Stray Distance: 318.7km
Total Stray Ascents: 2,277m
Total Stray Duration: 122.5h
270⛩; 53卍; 138🦊; 14/48🎁︎
Many new impressions overwhelmed me as I came to this new country. I loved the Shrines and Temples at every corner, even if school and my first home were not so flash.
Chapter 5 ~ Nikko, Shiroishi, Ishinomaki and Morioka
8-May-2018 – 21-May-2018
Total Stray Distance: 94.1km
Total Stray Ascents: 1,597m
Total Stray Duration: 38.25h
71⛩; 13卍; 20🦊; 23/57🎁︎
Travelling up the coast alongside my best friend Robert after such a long time in the Radiant Metropolis was a refreshing and vibrant experience. My uncontested favourite was Zao Kitsuna Mura, the foxiest place on earth.
Chapter 6 ~ Asahikawa & Wakkanai
24-May-2018 – 1-Jun-2018
Total Stray/Ride Distance: 35.6km/66,0km
Total Stray/Ride Ascents: 284m/344m
Total Stray/Ride Duration: 11.5h/9.0h
29⛩; 6卍; 3🦊; 2/6🎁︎
Streaking out for the north of Japan, I learnt of a hidden place that I should visit at a later time. My first and most extreme bike ride in Japan is competing with my daring stray through bear territory for the rank of my most memorable experience on this leg.
Chapter 7 ~ Sapporo
21-May-2018 – 24-May-2018 & 1-Jun-2018 – 30-Jun-2018
Total Stray Distance: 63.3km
Total Stray Ascents: 691m
Total Stray Duration: 25.75h
20⛩; 7卍; 3🦊; 3/8🎁︎
Working on Seina's and Kouji's strawberry farm kept me mighty busy and showed me once and for all that the farm life was not for me. Nonetheless I learned so much from them about Japan and its culture that I am definitely glad I came here.
Chapter 8 ~ Kitami, Nemuro, Erimo, Chitose, Hachimantai and Aomori
30-Jun-2018 – 6-Jul-2018
Total Stray Distance: 45.4km
Total Stray Ascents: 270m
Total Stray Duration: 13.25h
30⛩; 11卍; 3🦊; 12/24🎁︎
Chasing a lark, I found another place of foxes, as well as Godzilla and a geyser. My car trip around Hokkaido was my longest so far, followed by ship and train to Tohoku, it turned out to be quite a busy week.
Chapter 9 ~ Appi-Kogen
6-Jul-2018 – 8-Aug-2018
Total Stray Distance: 71.7km
Total Stray Ascents: 971m
Total Stray Duration: 20.25h
24⛩; 0卍; 6🦊; 0/0🎁︎
The second time I would work in Japan was in a relaxing remote resort. I found not only a loving host waiting for me at Pension Mutti, but also met a new friend.
Chapter 10 ~ Niigata, Sado & Naoetsu
8-Aug-2018 – 11-Aug-2018
Total Stray Distance: 40.4km
Total Stray Ascents: 388m
Total Stray Duration: 14.0h
24⛩; 23卍; 2🦊; 0/3🎁︎
My stay on the island of birds was far too short. I did my best to find some foxes there, but in the end all I found was many temples, and a little gold.
Chapter 11 ~ Yudanaka
11-Aug-2018 – 23-Aug-2018
Total Stray Distance: 19.0km
Total Stray Ascents: 562m
Total Stray Duration: 8.5h
17⛩; 13卍; 2🦊; 1/2🎁︎
Working under a cruel witch I found my Flirial heart. I did my best to take care of my comrades, but in the end I happily ran away.
Chapter 12 ~ Nagano, Nanao and Nagahama
23-Aug-2018 – 6-Sep-2018
Total Stray Distance: 66.3km
Total Stray Ascents: 562m
Total Stray Duration: 26.25h
109⛩; 65卍; 26🦊; 8/13🎁︎
Escaping from the Wicked Witch of the East, I savoured the sweet, sweet taste of freedom. A terrible typhoon crossed my path along the way, but my den held strong and firm.
Chapter 13 ~ Daisen
6-Sep-2018 – 27-Sep-2018
Total Stray/Ride Distance: 26.4/221.6km
Total Stray/Ride Ascents: 1,424/1,205m
Total Stray/Ride Duration: 9.5/29h
222⛩; 32卍; 36🦊; 10/14🎁︎
Finally having a bike again after three more months, I probably went overboard a little bit. Both cycling across the lake and scaling the mountain with thousands of other people turned out to be quite harrowing, but I'm nonetheless glad I did them.
Chapter 14 ~ Fukuoka
27-Sep-2018 – 1-Nov-2018
Total Stray/Dogwalk/Ride Distance: 29.3/129.9/185.6km
Total Stray/Dogwalk/Ride Ascents: 418/2,032/911m
Total Stray/Dogwalk/Ride Duration: 12.25/40.5/29.25h
284⛩; 39卍; 64🦊; 16/34🎁︎
Helping out a mother with her child and dog, I somehow became a father for the first time in my life. It was only for a month, but I would not have minded if it had lasted longer, maybe even for all my life.
Chapter 15 ~ Kagoshima and Naha
1-Nov-2018 – 3-Nov-2018, 11-Nov-2018, 5-Dec-2018 & 6-Dec-2018
Total Stray Distance: 44.0km
Total Stray Ascents: 426m
Total Stray Duration: 13.5h
40⛩; 6卍; 4🦊; 6/17🎁︎
Using trains and ships I journeyed to the southernmost reaches of Japan. It should not be until my eventual return to the fantastic volcanic city of Kagoshima that I would find fox Shrines again.
Chapter 16 ~ Tokashiki, Zamami and Aka
3-Nov-2018 – 4-Dec-2018
Total Stray/Ride Distance: 77.1/18.4km
Total Stray/Ride Ascents: 2,067/386m
Total Stray/Ride Duration: 22h
12⛩; 10卍; 0🦊; 12/35🎁︎
My time on the Kerama Islands marked the end of my life as a volunteer worker. I met many people during helping out at the Kerama Backpackers, and in the end seeing them wave me goodbye at the port brought tears to my eyes.
Chapter 17 ~ Saiki, Usuki and Yawatahama
6-Dec-2018 – 8-Dec-2018
Total Stray Distance: 18.0km
Total Stray Ascents: 189m
Total Stray Duration: 5.75h
29⛩; 5卍; 3🦊; 0/3🎁︎
Due to a ferry that did not run, I was forced to change my plans on short notice. This resulted in foxes, and a bunch of orange-y surprises.
Chapter 18 ~ Matsuyama, Iyo-Nagahama and Aoshima
8-Dec-2018 – 15-Dec-2018
Total Stray Distance: 58.5km
Total Stray Ascents: 720m
Total Stray Duration: 18.25h
110⛩; 39卍; 8🦊; 13/22🎁︎
Determined to make the most of my short time in the country of blue, I set out on some of my longest strays yet. My stay here was made particularly special by the felinemost 10 minutes of my life, and a relaxed chat with a Buddhist monk.
Chapter 19 ~ Onomichi, Ookunoshima and Okayama
15-Dec-2018 – 22-Dec-2018
Total Stray Distance: 30.6km
Total Stray Ascents: 600m
Total Stray Duration: 14.5h
89⛩; 37卍; 33🦊; 8/17🎁︎
Crossing the Shimanami Kaidou, I came to a town brimming with Temples and Shrines. The island of rabbits was my prime reason for coming here, and yet it also resulted in a joyous reunion with my friend from Appi-Kogen.
Chapter 20 ~ Kyoto and Nara
22-Dec-2018 – 11-Jan-2019
Total Stray Distance: 66.7km
Total Stray Ascents: 1,593m
Total Stray Duration: 34.0h
∞⛩; 89卍; ∞🦊; 13/31🎁︎
After 10 months in Japan, I finally reached the city of foxes. Fox Shrines without end could be found on every corner, and the city of deer nearby was nothing to be scoffed at either.
Chapter 21 ~ Toyokawa and Toyohashi
11-Jan-2019 – 18-Jan-2019
Total Stray Distance: 52.5km
Total Stray Ascents: 135m
Total Stray Duration: 15.5h
106⛩; 32卍; 14🦊; 2/12🎁︎
I came here to meet Japanese Furries, and attended an event that was both epic and disappointing at the same time. Afterwards I came across a foxy place that I had not known I'd lost.
Chapter 22 ~ Numazu
18-Jan-2019 – 30-Jan-2019
Total Stray/Ride Distance: 13.6/76.8km
Total Stray/Ride Ascents: 776/542m
Total Stray/Ride Duration: 5.0/11.25h
49⛩; 15卍; 14🦊; 18/26🎁︎
My final bike ride in Japan was enough to positively kill me. Nonetheless, I am glad I got to see one of Japan's three holy mountains up close.
Final Chapter ~ Kawasaki
30-Jan-2019 – 6-Feb-2019
Total Stray Distance: 47.1km
Total Stray Ascents: 246m
Total Stray Duration: 14.25h
65⛩; 26卍; 32; 1/13🎁︎
Returning to the point of origin, I tied up the last loose ends and said my farewells to this land I learnt to love so much. I passed on my knowledge to the next generation of travellers, and set my sights to the road ahead.
Once again, I kept track of all sorts of things on my journey, such as how long I was at which place. Interestingly, the amount of places I was at ended up being almost the same as in New Zealand, but with a much greater variance: Whereas my median stay length in New Zealand was around two weeks at each place with some shorter stopovers in between, the spectrum in Japan varied wildly between single nights and whole months. Interestingly, both in New Zealand and Japan, my longest stay in a single city amounted to about a quarter total of the entire trip.
As for the quality of those stays… it started out rather meh in the beginning in the Ooizumi Mansion in Tokyo, and then got significantly better once I moved to the Monterosa Biru and more or less had my own place. My travels with Robert had ups and downs, but were generally still better than the beginning. Working on the strawberry farm in Sapporo was hard, but I learned a lot, and my time in Appi-Kogen afterwards was the best working holiday experience I've ever had so far, exceeding even the best of New Zealand. By contrast, Yudanaka was complete pandemonium, worse than the worst places I've been to thus and since. Fortunately it went massively upwards from there, with both Fukuoka and Tokashiki setting new all-time records. After that, the remaining places went up and down a bit, but all of them clearly stayed on the "good" half of the curve. Summed up, I think my stays in Japan were just a bit more enjoyable than those of New Zealand.
Time-distribution-wise, my year in Japan turned out quite a bit different than New Zealand. Sure, sleeping, working and projects still take up the first three slots, but apparently I spent almost 50% more time outside exploring, and only about a quarter as much playing games. Also, I naturally did quite a lot more learning to polish my Japanese skills. As far as work hours are concerned, I racked up a grand total of 1,464 hours this time around, which is actually a few hours less than what I did in New Zealand. Guess all that freelance programming is paying off.
Now, about the jobs I did. Apparently Fate decided I had done enough gardening for a lifetime, taking it out of the pool entirely. Instead, aforementioned freelance IT (together with some IT help for hosts) work made up for over half my work time in Japan, after which came hospitality (well, I did work in a pension and two hostels). I was up for a bit more farm work than in New Zealand, but less work with animals. Gastronomy was more of an issue than domestic duties, and Child Care and Game Design were entirely new fields for me to engage in on a working holiday, curtsy of Sumire and Hikaru in Fukuoka. Also, I didn't get to make quite as many maps this time around.
Naturally, this adventure did not come for free. Once again I incurred quite a large sum of charges – over 17,000€ all in all. However, this time around, something is different. Curtsy of Netfira allowing me to work for them from half the world away, I was able to offset these expenses almost entirely, and a few minor contributions from hosts as well as my best friend Robert who not only repaid me for the expenses I covered during our trip in Japan but added a nice tip on top allowed me to clear the 100% mark near the very end, and come out very narrowly ahead.
All that is pre-tax, of course, so I'll probably still lose around 2,000€ or so once my homeland collects its dues, but that's still heads and tails ahead of the 8,000€ that my year in New Zealand cost me. Or to put it crude and simple: Having a job works, bitch!
Just like my time distribution, the distribution of my expenses is also notably different from what it was in New Zealand. Whereas in New Zealand the Flights and Program Costs were the most expensive posts, in Japan it was the Accommodations, due to me only staying at HelpX and WorkAway places for about four and a half out of the twelve months. As a result, my Shopping costs also went up. The main "winner", however, was Souvenirs, increasing by a factor of more than ten. Foxes might have been involved in that.
Catering also gained a few ranks, and for good reason! Whereas New Zealand sported mostly western cuisine (with the addition of tasty, tasty meat pies), Japan had a wide selection of…
Fantastic Foreign Food
Now this is where I am going to need some space to give you a very complete account of Japanese food as it is eaten by the people, as opposed to what you typically eat as a tourist. One of the best things of staying with a local family is that you learn about just that, and after getting my initial Japanese Food 101 in Sapporo and Appi-Kogen and combining it with my random improvisations from Tokyo, I've mastered my own very unique Fuuwashiki Ryouri (風和式料理 "European-Japanese Style Cooking"). But enough about that. Let us now proceed to genuine Japanese food, starting with my personal favourite…
Thick wheat flour noodles usually served in soup and with some condiments. My favourite is Kitsune Udon which is served with Inari-age – sweet-fried tofu – but there is also all sorts of varieties such as with egg, Tenpura batter, and other delicious ingredients. This is a very common food in Japan, and you can see Udon-ya (Udon Shops) all over the place where you can have a tasty and filling wholesome quick meal for less than 500¥ and be done in 15 minutes flat. As a result, these stores are very popular with busy Sarariman (サラリーマン "Salary Man" = "Office Worker").
Similar to Udon, only the noodles are made from buckwheat. They are much thinner than Udon and have a rich taste of their own. Apart from that, they are used in almost exactly the same way as Udon, and just like there are Udon-ya, there are also Soba-ya, albeit not quite as common. Together, Udon and Soba make up the vast majority of Japan's noodle dishes, and staying in Japan for any period of time and not tasting either one or the other is pretty difficult. Unlike Udon, which is more prevalent in the south of Japan, Soba is more common to the north, and the "Soba-Udon-equator" runs roughly along the border of Chuubu and Kansai.
Japan's #3 noodle dish, and not one of my favourites due to being rather fatty. Interestingly, even though it's often hyped as the Japanese noodle soup, it is not as prevalent as Udon or Soba once you're actually in the country. Also it originally came from China and was only introduced to Japan in 1660, whereas Udon and Soba have a much longer history. Ramen as we know it today come to be as an adaption of Japanese cuisine using Chinese thin wheat noodles.
Based on Ramen noodles (or rarely Soba), but much more to my liking, this roughly translates as "dipping noodles". The noodles are served cold on a wooden grill and with a bowl of cool sauce that you dip the noodles in before eating them. This is a very refreshing dish to have on those really hot days when you don't really feel like having a warm lunch on top of melting your tail off. The telltale wooden grill is also great for recognizing which dishes are hot and which are cold, just in case the menu is lacking the typical red markers for hot meals and blue markers for cold meals: If it's with soup, then it's hot, and if it's on a wooden grill, then it's cold.
The Japanese variant of frozen pizza. These come in all sorts of varieties, ranging from Udon, Soba and Ramen soup-styles to Yakisoba and Yakiudon variants where you drain the water before mixing in the sauce. These are the stereotypical quick lunches and eating them on the go is so ingrained in Japanese society that store clerks will almost automatically provide you with a set of disposable chopsticks for every cup you purchase, just in case you want to eat them right away. Hot water is not a problem either: All stores and I do mean all stores have a hot water dispenser somewhere after the checkout that you can use to prepare the cup noodles right there and then.
"Japanese Junk Food" as Sumire called it, and my favoured lunchtime meal. You can eat them at restaurants, prepare your own from scratch, or buy chilled Yakisoba, throw them in a pan, and then add whatever you like on top of it to have a quick and wholesome meal. Japanese people usually add a selection of vegetables and maybe some meat, whereas I – not liking cooked or grilled vegetables that much – usually go with self-made Inari-age, bacon or Naruto (fish cake with a distinctive spiral pattern).
Not quite as common, but following pretty much the same rules as Yakisoba all around, the sole difference being that you use Udon instead of Soba noodles. Both Yakisoba and Yakiudon are also commonly sold at festivals as a quick food to go, which does in no way diminish their tastiness or nutritional value. The syllable Yaki (焼) means "fry" by the way, and it's a popular way of preparing food in Japan (aka, dragon-style). As a result, there's quite a few dishes that either start with "Yaki" or have it somewhere in their names.
Not so much a food as an experience for the entire family. Yakiniku is usually eaten at restaurants that have special tables with integrated grills and overhead vents to siphon the smoke away, and everyone sits around the grill, putting on and taking off thin slices of meat or vegetables while casually chatting the evening away, ordering new plates of raw meat as they run out. One thing that may not be to everyone's liking is Horumon (ホルモン), which are a variety of intestines. Some of them are quite tasty, others more questionable, and some consist of so much fat that they pretty much burn on contact, creating nice flares to fascinate the younger onlookers.
The most genuine dragon-style food you'll have in Japan, aka putting meat on a stick and roasting it. Although literally meaning "Fried Bird", Yakitori can consist of all varieties of meat and vegetables, which after roasting are typically coated in a savoury, sticky sauce of sorts. For my taste there's a little bit too much meat in the experience, but for those who like it there is an entire alley full of exclusively Yakitori places right next to Shinuku-Eki.
Literally meaning "Fry whatever you like", this is roughly, very, very roughly, the Japanese equivalent of pancakes, and can pretty much contain… well… whatever you like. The real curiosity here, however, is the Okonomiyaki restaurants, which once again have specifically designed tables with an integrated heating field. Depending on the restaurant, the Okonomiyaki will either be prepared right in front of you by the staff, or you will merely be delivered the ingredients and then prepare the Okonomiyaki yourself (needless to say that restaurants of the second variety are considerably less expensive). Also, there is a slightly less-known variant known as Monjayaki, which uses a higher percentage of liquid ingredients such as Dashi, and as a result ends up with a less solid consistency somewhat akin to melted raclette cheese.
Fried octopus balls… not those kind of balls! These are often sold at Matsuri – where they are typically served in sets of three at a stick – but can also be prepared at home. Just like other dishes containing octopus meat, they are pretty chewy, and not really my sort of food.
Just like Takoyaki, these are a common sight at Matsuri and served on a stick. These rice dumplings come in a variety of colours and flavours, te availability of which wildly varies between regions and seasons. Also, they are typically one kind or another of sweet.
The most important ingredient in Japanese cooking. Whereas getting by without eating Udon or Soba is merely difficult, staying in Japan – even only for a few days – and not eating any rice is all but impossible. Rice is served with pretty much every Japanese meal that does not contain some kind of noodles. Unlike in western cuisine, where rice is usually served with some sort of sauce and eaten with a spoon, in Japan, rice is normally eaten pure and with chopsticks – it helps that Japanese rice is stickier than its western counterpart. As a result, pretty much every house in Japan has a rice cooker, and if you eat at a restaurant you often get served a big pot of rice out of which you can gradually scoop out portions into a smaller bowl.
In case you don't like to eat your rice pure, there's a number of traditional Japanese condiments to go on top of a bowl of rice. One of those are Umeboshi, sour pickled dried plums. And when I say sour I mean sour. Not just sour sour, but sour sour. A single Umeboshi is sufficient to add a considerable level of kick to an innocent bowl of rice, and eating one pure is a feat that only veterans of sour cuisine have any hope of accomplishing without running the risk of their faces imploding. Needless to say that I do like those, but even I would not attempt to eat one of these beasts whole in a single bite.
Option N°2 for adding a little something to your rice. This one is probably the most subtle variant. Effectively, Furikake is a sort of mixed flakes, and there are many variants consisting of combinations of seeds, sea weed, eggs and other ingredients which you can mix into the rice to add a bit of texture. Unsurprisingly, my favourite is Umeboshi-flavoured Furikake: The best of both worlds. =^,^=
Option N°3 is clearly the most controversial one. Natto consists of fermented soy beans, which taste pretty much exactly like you don't imagine when I just said that. Instead, Natto has a rich, fully, earthy taste, and a highly stick consistency, which is why it goes along so well with rice. It's pretty much the opposite of Umeboshi in that while the dried plums add a good deal of Zing to the rice, Natto feels more like grounding it and turning it into a healthy, rustic, wholesome meal. In olden times, Natto was stored in bushels of straw tied together on both ends like a giant piece of candy (and some fancy places still serve Natto wrapped like that), while nowadays Natto is most often found in telltale quadratic Styrofoam containers (usually in cube-like packs of 3 or 4), and comes in a number of different grain sizes with a variety of condiments to mix in, the most common combination being spicy mustard and soy sauce.
A typical European dish… yeah, seriously. Curry's journey to Japan was somehow adventurous, and took a very scenic detour over England and Portugal before finally arriving in the Land of the Rising Sun. As a result, Curry Rice has since and henceforth been regarded as European cuisine by the local population, and as a result is eaten with a spoon instead of chopsticks. Once again, there is a world of variations to be found here. Several restaurant chains like Sukiya and Coco specialize in Curry Rice, and supermarkets typically have an entire aisle of microwavable Curry Rice and Curry Rice powder (or blocks) for sale. One thing of note here is that the rice is not included in those, but even if you end up in a place that has neither a rice cooker nor a stove (yes, those do exist, as I regrettably had to find out), you can still subsist on microwavable rice, which typically can be found in the next aisle over.
Another dish that is often associated with Europe in Japan, and as a result often served in European-style restaurants. The concept is simple: Take an omelette, put rice inside, and a Bing! You've got Omrice! Now you just need to add some other typical European ingredients such as potatoes and maybe a block of hamburger meat, and you have made yourself a bona-fide European-style dish… at least as far as your average Japanese person is concerned.
Short version: Wiener Schnitzel. Long version: Actually still Wiener Schnitzel. The prime difference is that Tonkatsu is made from pork instead of beef, and is generally served with a very distinctive dark vegetable sauce that tastes nothing like what you think of when I say vegetable sauce. Also, Tonkatsu is by default cut into bite-sized slices, which is necessitated by the fact that you have to eat it with chopsticks and nothing else.
The first of a long row of Donburi (丼 "Bowl") dishes. Katsudon is effectively Tonkatsu on top of a bowl of rice, and that's already all there is to say about it.
Beef on rice, sometimes also called Beef Bowl. The thin strips of meat can easily be eaten with chopsticks, and are usually accompanied by onion.
Basically the exact same thing as Gyuudon, only with pork instead of beef.
Now this one is just a little bit perverse, because while the most common translation is "Chicken and Egg Bowl", the literal meaning is actually "Parent and Child Bowl".
And yet another instance of "stuff on top of rice". This time around it's Tenpura doing the honours. What is Tenpura? We're going to get to that in 3… 2… 1…
Tenpura is effectively fried seafood, fish or vegetables, with maybe the most common variety being Ebi (shrimp) Tenpura. But apart from that, there's also a world of other varieties, such as sweet potato Tenpura, Onion Tenpura or Pumpkin Tenpura. Tenpura also goes great with Udon, and many Udon-ya have an arrangement of Tenpura that you can help yourself to en route to the cashier. Tenpura is also commonly transcribed as "Tempura", which is due to the fact that the pronunciation of "np" in Japanese is more akin to "mp", so don't be confused when you go to Japan looking for Tempura but find only Tenpura instead. It's the same thing transcribed differently.
Dumplings with a variety of fillings that are typically dipped in just a little bit of sauce immediately prior to consumption. Originally coming from China, they have since spread all over Japan. It's closest western counterpart are Ravioli, with the main difference being that Gyouza are typically about twice as big, crescent shaped and filled with ingredients such as meat, garlic, ginger and cabbage.
Another experience for the entire family. Basically, you have one or more pots with different base sauces (dedicated Shabushabu restaurants may have fancy Taijitu pots), and then order ingredients to boil inside the sauces. Everyone has access to the pot, and pretty much takes out whatever he or she likes, putting it on a personal plate to let it cool off before eventually eating it. Just like with Yakiniku, you order more ingredients as the old ones run out, idly chatting the evening away. As an added perk, the sauces gradually change flavour as more and more stuff is boiled in them, adding an entire extra layer to the experience.
And yet one more of those family experiences. Or actually, that one is more common among office workers. Also, it's more a style of eating than an actual dish. Once again, at an Izakaya restaurant, everyone sits around a table and shares whatever food is ordered, and you just keep on ordering more food as long as people are hungry. The selection of food varies between restaurants, and can include western dishes such as pizza or cold cuts along with more traditional Japanese food. A common feature of all Izakaya, however (along with many Yakiniku and Shabushabu places) is the drink flatrate, where you pay a set amount of money and then get access to as many drinks as you want for a set period of time, usually 90 minutes. There are typically two types of those flatrates: A cheap one for soft drinks, and a more expensive one for alcoholic beverages.
A specialty of Nikko. Somewhat akin to Tofu, Yuba is made of the skin of boiling soil milk, which is repeatedly collected and folded back upon itself to form mushy blocks that are extremely juicy, almost like some sort of fruit, and yet unlike anything I've ever eaten before. Definitely not a bad taste though.
A popular food during the cold months. Oden pretty much consists of all sorts of things served in hot soup, and many Konbinis sell hot Oden during the winter, where you can choose your own ingredients from a selection. One common thing here is Konyaku, a brown-ish speckled hard jelly-like substance made from the Konjac plant. It's kinda sweet – but not too much so – and its consistency is roughly that of gelatine.
Being an ancestral island country, fish makes up a big part of Japanese cuisine – bigger than is to my personal liking. The most difficult way to eat fish is whole… and with chopsticks, of course. The trick is to first turn it over, then take off the head, then divide it in two halves along the middle, after which you can just tear off little strips of meat if you did it correctly and the fish was prepared properly. I usually struggled with this kind of dish. Like, a lot.
A much more enjoyable way of eating fish. All dishes come in bite-sized portions that you can eat as a whole. Getting Sushi in Japan is easy: Even the cheap Sushi sold in Konbinis and supermarkets is better than what you get served in most Sushi places here, and then there's all sorts of Sushi restaurants around. Fancy expensive places where you can eat the best Sushi you've ever tasted, running Sushi with chefs in the middle of a circular conveyor to whom you can just call orders in case you favourite dish is not on the belt, and futuristic automatic restaurants where you make your orders on a touchscreen and the Sushi is automatically delivered to your table by a conveyor belt. Interestingly, there is also a fish-less variant called Inari-Sushi (another favourite food of foxes), which consists only of rice inside a pouch of sweet-fried Tofu.
Basically Sushi without any rice. Or maybe the fish-variant of a cold platter. Sashimi consists effectively of thinly sliced slabs of raw fish, which goes down like silk. Now, I know many people find the thought of eating raw fish revolting, but it's actually not bad at all, and you've also got to consider that several types of ham which are eaten as part of a cold platter, such as Prosciutto, is effectively also raw meat.
Rice balls with some sort of filling, such as fish, bean paste, egg, mushrooms, mayonnaise and other things. They traditionally come wrapped in a sheet of sea weed so you can eat them with your hands without getting your fingers sticky. I massively over-ate on them during my first weeks and as a result can no longer bear the sight of them, so make sure to eat them in moderation if you go to Japan. Also, since pre-made Onigiri have the problem that the sea weed gets soggy if left in contact with the rice for too long, some of these come packaged in a really clever wrapping that separates the sea weed from the rice with an extra layer of plastic until you open it, at which time the sea weed gets wrapped almost perfectly around the rice. It's hard to imagine unless you've tried it yourself, but it works!
Doesn't actually taste like melon. Instead, it's named after the shape, which looks like a halved Cantaloupe. It's made from sweet dough and sometimes dotted with chocolate chips, making it a great food for long and arduous day trips, ideally together with a tasty Yakisoba-roll (which, as the name suggests, is simply Yakisoba in a bread roll).
A boxed meal that can be either store-bought or home-made. Bento can contain all sorts of different foods, though you can bet your tail that there will be rice inside. The preparation of Bento for husband and children is to this date one of the traditional duties of a Japanese housewife, and as a result, the skilful and loving arrangement of Bento has evolved into an art not unlike Ikebana. Also, it is not unheard of for girls to prepare Bento as a means of conveying romantic interest in a boy.
Traditional Japanese Breakfast
Nowadays, toast and cereal have found their way into the breakfast routine of many Japanese families. However, there are still those that adhere to the old ways, and in hotels you can usually choose between Washiki (和式 "Japanese Style") and Youshiki (洋式 "Western Style") breakfasts. Apart from rice (duh!), a Washiki Asagohan usually includes tea, Misoshiru (味噌汁 "Miso Soup"), some kind of fish, a salad, Natto, pickles, some variety of egg, and a number of other small dishes. It's actually quite an effort to prepare all of this, so I can understand why fewer and fewer people do it. Nonetheless, it's still nice to be able to enjoy it.
And that's it for the food! I think with that I've covered a majority of Japanese cuisinary culture. And while we're on the topic of culture, let us proceed to my favourite aspect, namely all the…
Shiny Shrines, Terrific Temples
By now, it shouldn't be surprising anyone when I say that one of my main reasons to come to Japan was to go on an epic pilgrimage around the country, visiting as many Shrines and Temples as I could. To briefly sum it up here: The Religion of Japan is Shinto-Buddhism. Technically, they are two separate religions, but the Japanese practice them in unison and without one excluding the other, so they might as well be considered one. The truly amazing thing here is that there are Shrines and Temples pretty much at every street corner, and since unlike churches, they are mostly open-air structures (with a small inner hall for formal ceremonies), you can just walk up to them and pay your respects to the local deities. As a result, straying around and paying my respects at as many Shrines and Temples as possible became a major project during my time in Japan.
Shinto Shrines venerate the eight million gods of the land – known as Kami (神) – one at a time, and they are easily recognized by the following trademarks:
- One or more Torii at the entrance
- A globular bell on a rope over the donation box
- Shimenawa (標縄 "Seal Rope"), a rope with distinctive zig-zag paper strips hanging from it, signifying clouds and lightning
- Names ending with "Jinja" (神社 "Shrine"), "Oomyoujin" (大明神 "Great Gracious Goddess"), "Miya" (宮 "Shinto Shrine"), or "Ookami" (大神 "Great Goddess")
Buddhist Temples meanwhile venerate the Buddha and various Buddhist deities. Just like Shinto Shrines, they have distinctive trademarks that make them easy to tell apart if you know what to look for:
- A little gatehouse at the entrance (medium-sized and bigger temples only)
- An sand bowl or box for burning incense
- A little gong on a rope over the donation box
- A bell on a wooden rack in the courtyard, with a suspended log to ring it (bigger temples only)
- Names ending with "Ji" (寺 "Temple"), "In" (院 "Institute/Temple"), or "Dou" (堂 "Hall")
And then, there's Jizous, little Buddhist guardian deities of travellers and children that can be found all over Japan if you keep your eyes open.
Apart from Shrines and Temples, I also came across a couple of Konkou Churches, believing in the oneness of the universe and the existence of divinity in every thing in the world, connecting all as one…
…as well as a single Confucian Temple in the centre of Tokyo.
But back to the Temples and Shrines. Altogether, I have visited exactly 1955 Shinto Shrines and 546 Buddhist Temples, each of varying sizes. Almost half of them were small or tiny Side Shrines or Side Temples to a bigger Shrine or Temple, and many more were Jizous or tiny roadside Shrines. Only a little more than a quarter were medium-sized or bigger. As for the size categories: I assigned them as follows:
- Complex: A massive Shrine or Temple with grounds the size of a park (14 total)
- Big: A manor-sized Shrine or Temple, covering about a hectare (134 total)
- Medium: A Shrine or Temple that you could comfortably live in if it were a house (561 total)
- Small: A Shrine or Temple that you could seek shelter in if it were to rain (243 total)
- Tiny: A Shrine or Temple too small to fit a grown person, or even a child (204 total)
Now, back to the eight million gods. Even with the generous amount of Shrines everywhere, it's still kinda hard to imagine that this many deities are venerated all over the places, even if some Shrines "cheat" by venerating as many as nine deities at once.
Instead, there are a number of major deities that are revered all over the country, such as Inari, the deity of rice and fertility (whose guardian animals are foxes)…
…as well as a countless number of one-of-a-kind Shrines, which may or may not add up to a total of eight million different deities all over the country. At the beginning, it was pretty confusing, but as I visited more and more Shrines, I eventually learned to decipher the Kanji and use them to identify recurring deities all over Japan. Much to my delight, most of them should be Inari-Shrines (many, but not all of them featuring foxes), and a small number of non-Inari Shrines are occasionally also attended by Foxes. Apart from Inari, some of the more common deities of Japan are:
- Hachiman (八幡): God of warriors and general protector
- Konpira (金毘羅): God of sailors and seafaring
- Ebisu (恵比寿): God of fishing (one of the Shichifukujin)
- Benzaiten (弁財天): Goddess of music and knowledge and everything that flows (another one of the Shichifukujin)
- Amaterasu (天照大神): Goddess of the sun and highest deity in Shinto faith
- Susanoo (須佐之男): God of Storms
- Tenmangu (天満宮): Enshrines Sugawara no Michizane; associated with learning
- Mountain (山): Usually dedicated to a local mountain deity
- Tree/Island/Field (木/島/田): Same as Mountain Shrines
- Dragon (龍/竜): Dragons are venerated as deities of water and rivers in Japan
- Heaven (天): Dedicated to the entire pantheon(?)
- Akiba (秋葉): Actually, I'm still not sure about those, but they exist all over the country. Akiba literally translates into "Autumn Leaf"
All things considered (including the above mentioned fact that some Shrines are dedicated to up to 9 different Kami, I have paid my respects to maybe a thousand different deities or so… oh, no wait… I've been at two of these – one near Matsuyama and one in Kyoto – so I guess technically I said hi to the entire 8.000.000. It feels like cheating to just build a Happyakuman Jinja (八百萬神社 "Eight Million Gods Shrine"), but I guess it's part of the religion.
In terms of distribution, most Shrines are located in the area of the old Yamato kingdom, with notably fewer Shrines being present in Tohoku, Hokkaido, southern Kyushu and Okinawa. The extreme hyper-vast magna-majority of fox Shrines is around Kyoto, by the way, with only very few in Hokkaido, and none at all in Okinawa.
The distribution of Temples follows more or less along the same lines, only that there are not quite as many of them. The one place that breaks the pattern here is Sado, which has a disproportionate amount of Temples due to its history as a place of exile, where among others a number of influential Buddhist Monks were banished for daring to question the divine (Shinto!) authority of the emperor (see Book II ~ Chapter 10 ~ Sadistic Sightseeing).
Just like in New Zealand, I also have a challenge for those of you who are interested here. Visiting Fox Shrines aplenty, I have compiled a list of one Fox Shrine to visit for every day of the year.
This list will take you all around Japan, and take you to the most noteworthy of the Fox Shrines I visited, while also staying somewhat close to the day I visited them on. Madness? No! THIS!!! IS!!!
And that's enough about Shrines and Temples! Next up, another of the reasons why I came to Japan, namely…
The Animamates Places
Apart from Shrines and Temples, Japan also has a few choice places where animals abound. Four of them – Zao Kitsune Mura, Tashirojima, Aoshima and Ookunoshima – were on my to-visit-list from the very start, and the other three were places that the wind simply took me to. They are literally all over the map, and some of them are less accessible than others.
Zao Kitsune Mura
12-May-2018 – 13-May-2018
Location: Northwest of Shiroishi, Touhoku
Located in the mountains of Zao south of Sendai, and a good bit north of Tokyo, this amazing place features the densest concentration of foxes I have seen in my entire life. You can walk right alongside them, and they even offer a fox hug experience!
It's a bit off the grid though. You can get as far as Shiroishi by train or even Shinkansen, but after that you either have to take a shuttle (if you can figure out how), pay for a Taxi, or rent a car. Since Robert and I stayed here for several days, renting a car was the sensible option. That way we could also make a trip into the nearby mountains.
Apart from cute foxes all over the place, one of the highlights here were clearly the delightfully Engrish warning signs.
For more about Zao Kitsune Mura, see Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together (Section "A Village of Vulpines").
Location: South of Ishinomaki, Touhoku
This one was a bit of a letdown. Robert and I came to this Island near Ishinomaki – which is pretty much exactly on the opposite side of Sendai if seen from Shiroishi – expecting to see heaps of cats… but the amount of cats we got to see was actually somewhat underwhelming. Now, don't get me wrong, the population of cats on this island is definitely above average, but it is for example nowhere near the extreme levels of felinity I've seen at the Dolphin Reef near Eilat in Israel many years ago. All in all, this would be the one Animamates places that I can not recommend.
One thing in its favour is that it is a bit more accessible. You can get to Ishinomaki by train, and then have to take the ferry to Tashirojima, which runs three or four times a day. Getting from the train station to the ferry terminal is a bit of a walk, but there's many nice parks and Shrines along the way.
For more about Tashirojima, Book II ~ Chapter 5 ~ A Trip Together (Section "The Kingdom of Cats").
Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou
Location: West of Kitami, Hokkaido
This one is a hidden gem in the heart of Hokkaido. I only learned about it from a nice host in Asahikawa where I stayed for a couple of days, and then set all gears in motion in order to get there. In the end, it was totally worth it!
Now, of all the Animamates places, this one is the furthest out of the way. Although the nearest train station – Nishi-Rubeshibe (西留辺蘂 "West Fastened Boundary Pistil") – here is still closer than in Zao Kitsune Mura, the fact that it is in the freaking middle of Hokkaido makes this one about as remote as it gets. You could probably take a bus, if you manage to figure out the routes. Also, even though Kitami is the nearest big city, and this place is named after it, it should be mentioned that Kitami is actually still a comfortable 35km further to the east. I for my part took a rental car again, and used the chance to explore the entire southwest of Hokkaido while I was at it.
Compared to Zao Kitsune Mura, Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou is a lot more relaxed. The foxes don't have to compete for food, and there's more space for everyone. In fact, there's so much space that there are even a few Tanukis living among the foxes.
For more about Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou, see Book II ~ Chapter 8 ~ An East Side Story (Section "Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou").
Jigokudani Yaen Kouen
Location: East of Yudanaka
Another Animamates-place that I just randomly ran into: The Snow Monkey Valley, where the monkeys bathe in the hot Onsen during the wintertime. Unlike the last three places, there are no barriers restricting the movement of the monkeys (well, there are fences, but those are more for keeping other animals away since the monkeys can easily climb across them), so the monkeys are free to come and go as they like.
This place is located in the mountains east of Nagano, and is about 10 STEPs away from the nearest train station, and the route there takes you through an idyllic green valley full of steaming hot springs. Whatever you do, however, do not stay at the Nozaru Hostel. The owner is a cruel witch who runs the place solely with volunteers, forcing them to work 50+ hours per week just for food and accommodation, neither of which are anything special.
However, the monkeys are nice to watch. The only drawback is that this place is sometimes a little bit crowded with… other monkeys.
For more about Kitami Kitakitsune Bokujou, see Book II ~ Chapter 11 ~ The Yoke of Yudanaka (Section "Interlude: Monkeying Around").
Location: West of Matsuyama
The true island of cats. Smaller than Tashirojima but populated by that many more felines, you may want to actively watch where you go, lest you accidentally step on a cat.
It is a bit harder to reach as it is located off the shore of a small town by the name of Iyo-Nagahama in Shikoku, the next two bigger cities being Matsuyama and Yawatahama. Also, there are only two boats going to and from the island each day, and one of those got cancelled due to stormy weather, so I had to take the same boat back from the island that I took to get there, spending only ten minutes where I could have stayed for hours otherwise. Also, you can only catch the early ferry by getting there with the very first train that leaves from Matsuyama at 6:00 in the morning.
For more about Aoshima, see Book II ~ Chapter 18 ~ Matsuyama Madness (Section "Day Trip 2 ~ A Funky Feline Fiasco ").
Location: Southwest of Onomichi
The fourth and last of the planned Animamates places. The island of rabbits is just teeming with lovely little lagomorphs lolling around in the sun all over this small island. During WW2, there used to be a poison gas facility on this island with bunnies as test subjects, and opinions diverge on the question of whether the rabbits on this island are descendants of the survivors, or were only introduced afterwards, with supporters of both claims bringing forth credible arguments. Either way, now there are happy bunnies all over, making this a lovely place. Feeding them is allowed, but you have to bring your own Esa (エサ "Animal Food") from the mainland, as there's none sold on the island.
Ookunoshima is located about 50km east of Hiroshima, and can conveniently be reached by train and ferry. There is a great number of ferries going there each day – which is partly due to the fact that Ookunoshima also serves as a midway stop between Honshu and Oomishima – and a complete timetable can be found online on rabbit-island.info.
Anyway, suffice it to say that I really enjoyed the company of these adorable fluffballs, even if they made eating lunch just a little bit of a hassle.
For more about Ookunoshima, see Book II ~ Chapter 19 ~ The Onomichi Overdrive (Section "Day Trip 2 ~ A Funky Feline Fiasco ").
Location: South of Kyoto
One last unplanned Animamates place that I visited in the spur of the moment on one of my last days in Kyoto. It's amazing how tame the deer are around here, going so far as standing boldly in the middle of the roads. Heavily-trafficked four-lane roads, that is! Just like the snow monkeys in Yudanaka, the deer of Nara are perfectly free to come and go as they like, with no barriers restricting their movements. This unique population of semi-tame deer could only come into existence because deer are the sacred animals of Nara, and as a result deer have never been hunted in this particular area of Japan, and as thus never had any reason to fear people.
Nara is a city located in a valley south of Kyoto and east of Oosaka, and as a result is extremely well accessible. You can take the train right into the centre of the city (and there's even two different train networks operating here), and from there it's only a short walk to get to the part of town where the deer reside.
Altogether, it's a wonderful place to be at, and gives one an idea of how the world would look like if people did not hunt deer down all over the place all the time. Also, it's a great example that contrary to what hunters always tend to say, the forests all over the place are doing just fine even though no one is keeping the deer population "under control".
And with that, we have come to the conclusion of the Animamates places, and are thus nearing…
Another adventure has come to an end. This time, it has been the adventure of my lifetime. The place I've always wanted to visit, and now I've done and did it!
I've learned a great many things during my stay there. About the people and the culture, about the country and the language, but maybe most importantly of all, I learned to spread my wings and fly. I have sundered the final chains that bound me and am now free to soar the endless skies above the dark ocean. Now I've truly become the Radiant Winged Fox, and can chase the wind wherever I wish to go.
I'll never forget the wonderful time I've had here. And I'll never forget the amazing people I've met. My special thanks go out to all of you who gave me a place to live and taught me about Japanese culture. It might not have been as many as in New Zealand, but in exchange I spent more time with them and forged deeper bonds. Thank you once again, thank you so very, very much!
Oh, and one last thing… Do you remember all the gift artworks I've handed out during my time in Japan?
They hide a deeper secret… a challenge, if you so will. If you count yourself among the holders of one such gift artwork, then you can now unfold it and read what I have written on the back of each of them. Among others, the riddle contains a place that is not too far from any place in Japan, and a time in the not too distant future. Every piece of gift artworks holds a piece of the key to decode the secret message, and if enough of you – the people whom I've met on my travels and entrusted with a piece – convene at the right place and the right time, I'm sure you'll be able to figure it out. If you do, make sure to take a picture of your group. I'd love to see the people I've met during my travels in front of one of my favourite places in Japan.
Good Luck, all of you!
The Tales of the Travelling Fox are yet to continue.
Until then, be of great cheer!