In a confused conversation with a train ticketing attendant in Takayama, I accidentally/intentionally booked us tickets on all local trains all the way down to Kyoto (we are on a strict budget, and the ‘bullet trains’ are much more expensive than we had expected). Our 5 ½ hour ride with four train transfers saved us $95, and it actually gave us a chance to take in the countryside, observe the joyful exchanges of three cute old men sitting across from us who seemed to be telling each other funny stories, and cat-nap to the rhythmic hiccups of the tracks and the white noise of a beautiful language that we don’t understand.
Kyoto’s Southern Higashiyama district was a sea of tourists, every single one brandishing a fancy camera or iPhone, and it was a swelteringly hot and humid day. Geisha girls shuffled around in packs, taking selfies and making us wonder whether they are real geishas or just Japanese girls playing dress up for the day (we still don’t know the answer to this). It felt like we were walking through a cloud, and being that it was practically our first day of sunshine on our entire trip thus far, after exploring about one and a half temples amidst the crowds, we were ‘templed out’ and decided to check off another item on our bucket list for Japan: ‘conveyor belt sushi’. It is what it sounds like—colored plates of sushi stream by your table and you can pick up whatever makes your mouth water. The color of the plates tell you the price of the sushi (purple plates are 350 yen, yellow plates are 500 yen, etc.) It was a pretty great system for people who love sushi! But really, the spigot of fresh hot green tea at the edge of the table was all Brian needed to exclaim, “This is awesome!”
The rain came back the next day, but nothing could have made the lush gardens of the Tofuko-ji Temple more majestic. Sitting under the shelter of the temple roof as the rain came down in sheets was a memorable experience. After we had reached our peak state of zen for the day, we took a train out to the Arashiyama district to the west of the city, rented bikes, waited out the heaviest rain in a teahouse, and then explored the bamboo grove and the quaint, green, and quiet neighborhoods that sit at the base of the mountains.
When you’re looking for a place to eat in Japan, the strangest thing is that there are strings of large flags covering the doorways to the restaurants, and the front windows are usually painted with a fog effect so you can’t really see in. We felt a little creepy walking around the very local streets near our AirBnB, peeking into windows trying to figure out if the places had English menus, or at the very least, pictures of the food. Brian finally opened our Japanese language app and practiced saying ‘Do you have a menu in English’ enough times to walk in and ask in a place that had charmed us from the outside. Soon, we were sitting barefoot and cross-legged at a low table surrounded by groups of locals at other low tables. The menu had some basic English and no pictures, but it was a Yakitori place like we had eaten in with our friends Mike and Colleen, and so we knew the drill. We ordered our selections along with two large carafes of sake. Before we knew it, we were confused and laughing with a big bowl of fried chicken cartilage in front of us. We didn’t want to be rude, so we gnawed through it, piece by piece, taking big swigs of sake in between bites. We had also ordered some veggie plates, but we were not satisfied in the meat category, so we tried ordering something else that sounded good. This time we got a big plate of chicken cartilage sautéed with asparagus. Unfortunately, when the chef is in full sight behind the counter and the waiter is super attentive, you feel like you have to eat what’s been prepared for you. So, we took more big swigs of sake and gnawed through this second mound of cartilage. We studied the menu after this second confusing outcome and made an important note to selves: point to the Japanese text not the English text when you are ordering…the Japanese was written above the English and the waiters cannot read English, so for every item we intended to order, we received the menu item written in Japanese below it! We left drunk, chuckling, slightly grossed out, and hoping that our bodies knew how to digest chicken cartilage.
I have been coughing and battling sickness since we left on this trip, so when we went to the next city of Osaka, we looked up an English-speaking health clinic so I could see a doctor. We entered a completely white waiting area with lavender-colored seats and two Japanese receptionist girls who had their hair and makeup exactly the same and did not speak English but smiled sweetly and motioned for me to complete some paperwork and wait for the doctor. When I was called back to the doctor, he had me sit with him at his desk on a stool about two feet from him. His English was about 65-70% but he listened carefully to all of my symptoms, nodding and saying hmm-mm-hmmm, and eventually he grabbed a blank sheet of paper and drew up a numbered list of possible diagnoses. He went down his list and explained each one to me, then said he would run a few tests and hopefully be able to come to a conclusion about what I have. With the help of a sweet nurse who had to literally act out what to do because we had no words to speak to one another, I got a chest X-ray and did a breathing test with a tube attached to a computer; we both giggled as she mimed each step. After waiting with Brian in the surreal waiting room for a while, I was called back into the doctor’s office and he had my chest X-ray on a screen. He carefully explained and pointed to everything that he was seeing in the X-ray, and slowly began crossing some of the diagnoses off of his original list with a red pen (no pneumonia…thank God!). I greatly appreciated his thoroughness as we would be heading to Nepal in two short days. I was in this clinic for over an hour—speaking to the doctor, doing the tests, waiting for the doctor to look at the results, listening to the doctor explain his thought process and come to a conclusion about what meds to give me, and waiting for him to prepare the meds (right in the office!). What blew us away was that I was given 100% attention for one hour, four different medications to treat my cough variant asthma and slight case of bronchitis, and without any insurance, this entire visit cost us $80 US dollars! We were out the door with a sense of relief that I might be on the path to recovery and a sense of how screwed up the U.S. healthcare system really is. Once again: The Japanese have it right.
After spending a few days in the sleepy, Old World city of Kyoto, we found the vibrant, modern, hip city of Osaka a breath of fresh air. The infrastructure of roads, train tracks, pedestrian walkways, roof gardens, and high rises makes Osaka feel like a city from a futuristic sci-fi movie. The Osaka train station is a wonder in itself—a half-indoor, half-outdoor mall 10 stories high, filled with shops and restaurants on every level. We got to try ‘department store dining’ here and the Southern Japan specialty of Okonomiyaki, a cabbage-filled pancake made with your choice of veggies and meat, cooked on a hot griddle right at your table. We also enjoyed another point-and-see-what-you-get meal of craft beers and amazing food in a hip little bar in our neighborhood that felt like it could have been transplanted from Philly (uhh, except for the very stark difference that the chefs, bartenders, and waitresses all bow to you when you leave!).