Don’t Wear Flip Flops to a Fish Market, and Other Lessons I Learned in Japan
By Corianda Dimes
Last summer, my uncles took my brother and I on “our trip.” It had already happened for the other cousins, who were taken to China, and my aunts, who hiked—spurred by coca leaves—in Peru. But this year, it was our turn.
My uncles decided on Japan in 2010, booking flights and making plans to spend half of the week in Tokyo and the other half in the historic city of Kyoto. I was born in Germany but never ventured further east than Prague, and that was when I was a toddler. Japan was a magical world away. And then the devastating tsunami struck in March of 2011, a few short months before our flights. Everything was cast into doubt. Will trains be running? Will it be safe?
It’s a testament to my uncles’ travel lust that we still went. Prices were more expensive and the air conditioning was sometimes turned off, but we were greeted with friendly people and an inexplicably wonderful experience. I also learned some vital travel lessons from the week-long journey:
1. Don’t Wear Flip Flops to a Fish Market
Like any sensible, modern girl who knows that all photos will be on Facebook, I carefully planned what went into my suitcase. It was July, the height of the rainy and hot season in Japan, and we were going to be doing a lot of walking. On the first day in Tokyo, I donned cute but functional shorts, sunglasses, and sensible black sandals.
And then we went to the Tsukiji Fish Market. Tsukiji is home to early-morning tuna auctions, a fish Mecca filled with seafood vendors that provide Tokyo with its daily mercury and tentacles. But this isn’t Pike Place or Lexington Market. This is a giant warehouse, with zipping industrial scooters and Styrofoam boxes and glass tanks glittering with shellfish and fish like you’ve never seen before. Tuna heads eye you from blocks of ice and Martian crustaceans wave their feelers, and the ice spills over into narrow paths riddled with fishy puddles. Here, the accessories of choice are PVC aprons, thigh-high galoshes, humongous knives and the occasional dangling cigarette. And I’m in sandals. I’m that tourist with a colossal backpack wearing socks and Tevas at Mann’s theater, or the inevitable petite blonde “hiking” Griffith park in six-inch wedges. Even the Kardashians know when to don Sketchers.
I gave up flitting between the puddles/landmines and embraced that my feet were going to get wet and fishy or I was going get smacked in the face by a shopper’s bag. It was magical, and we ate the freshest sushi in a closet-sized eatery next door.
2. Give Up On Your Plans (Or: How I Learned to Love the Guidebook)
Before we left for Japan, I did what I usually do: I hit the internet. Googling, reading, ChowHounding, tweeting, watching Bizarre Foods and No Reservations—I had a nice little list of to-eats when I touched down at Narita. But like any good plans, they were abandoned. And no matter how awesome it must be for people to “travel like the locals,” there’s a reason guidebooks exist: to save your butt.
We spent two hours navigating the subway, deciphering street signs, and dipping into the ground floors of office buildings in Tokyo to try to find a place I had flagged for chicken sashimi, only to find that they were closed for lunch. So we turned to the guidebook, and ducked (and I mean, ducked) under some train tracks to find two Yakitori haunts. Using the pack of grizzled old lunch-breakers as our indicator, we slid into a low table and followed their lead: Tofu. Two chicken. Chicken heart and intestine. Beef. And four, giant, ice-cold beers, please. Actually, bring two more? Barring the beers, the food came out glistening with fat and sauce, charred in front of us and becoming the most delicious thing we could have imagined. The 90 degree heat and being huddled under a train track only added to the magic, though the beers definitely helped.
The end of the week found us in a cab in Kyoto, lubricated with champagne, the driver whizzing off as per instructions rapid-fired at him from the Hyatt Recency general manager. We thought we were going to a rowdy Izakaya. Instead, we are ushered into a building, instructed to remove our shoes, and seated at the bar of a tiny room. The menu placed in front of us read like a poetry class: Delicate, like snow falling on winter cedars—[three-figure-price]. Graceful, like a lotus petal opening after rain—[what I paid for textbooks last semester]. My brother and I looked to our uncles for the lead, and they forged ahead: we’re staying. What ensued was a breathtaking, Kaiseki menu of indescribable dishes, from a scored fish inverted in a broth studded with gummy herbs to Kobe beef sliced like sashimi to a cedar box of Furi-Yuba (soy milk skin). We were lucky the chef spoke English.
I didn’t get my chicken sashimi, but I got lip-smacking chicken. My suggestion of lunch in a maid café (look it up) was vetoed when it was deemed too creepy, but we slurped ramen instead. And we did eventually get to a raucous Izakaya, A-Bar, and between drinking games with Japanese students and fried chicken skin, it was just as great—and we found it in the guide book.
3. Get Over Yourself
Say you have a museum. Say you have an entire hall to devote to “American History.” What would you put in it?
Growing up in Maryland, with family in Boston, “The Thirteen Original Colonies,” “Revolutionary War,” and generally, “The Founding of America” are all good answers. Apparently, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles decided “Gold Rush and Trains” were all that needed to be covered. I was offended. The east coast has an inflated sense of self-importance when it comes to America, and I’m going to say justifiably so. Boston Tea Party? We have that. The Liberty Bell? Yup, ours too. “The Bombs Bursting in Air?” Happened in the Baltimore Harbor, homies.
One day walking around Kyoto destroyed any semblance of that significance. I’m not saying I’m no longer proud and patriotic, but we walked around for five hours and saw over a dozen temples that had been there since before the U.S. was conceived. Ancient Greek ruins are one thing, but to see a culture so entirely different than our Western worldview, so in tune with nature and history and identity in an entirely foreign way, was awe-inspiring. There are 17 World Heritage Sites in Kyoto alone.
Rain was falling softly when we walked through a bamboo forest and tiptoed through a monastery garden that was almost entirely moss and rocks. We stopped at a giant, palatial temple and wandered among hundreds of statues of gods, warriors and emperors in a long, squat hall. Small, untouched buildings and stone streets led to a towering pagoda.
The last temple we visited wasn’t a temple at all, but a vast maze of torii gates, bright orange. The Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to the deity Inari, the Shinto god of rice and by extension commerce. His messengers are foxes, and the whole expanse is three miles of hiking trails through thousands of archways, one after the other. We climbed up stone-hewn stairs, and every so often, the endless tunnel of orange broke away to stone shrines, piled on top of each other, guarded by fox statues and the occasional very-much-alive cat.
There’s nothing that can compare to that experience, and the experience of the trip as a whole. I learned early on to stop, just take it in and remember to close my mouth—a perpetual “Wow” face doesn’t look good in pictures.
Some lessons that didn’t make the cut: Have a Home Base; Learn Some of the Language or at Least How to Say “Cheers;” and Weather Ain’t No Thang. Tweet me at @corianda to hear about them.
Reading Les Miserables. High school English let me down, so now I’m making it my required summer reading.
Watching Breaking Bad and Wilfred. And yes, I did see Magic Mike this week.
Listening to An inexplicably large amount of folk and bluegrass
Eating Not foie
Drinking Earl Grey tea