Ten days in Japan:
Many families we work with ask for our advice on educational travel to Europe and South America; after all, those continents have a familiar feel, and they don’t seem too far away. Some of our clients want to travel to Africa, but usually on safaris. We really aren’t into safaris, no matter how many people tell us we’re missing out, so we don’t wind up discussing those ventures with them. However, despite the fact that our students’ families willingly travel into the African unknown to observe lions dining on hyenas in the wild, they fear the cultural differences they might face in Asia. Well, after decades of studying Asian history in our jobs and our own educations, Jamil and I decided to make the transpacific voyage to Japan and Korea to see for ourselves whether or not we should recommend those destinations to our clients. We were knocked off our feet, and we gained some serious insights into how to maximize your educational experiences in both places.
Tip #1: In Tokyo, hire Yukari Sakamoto for an unforgettable tour.
Everyone we know, even the pickiest of eaters, enjoys some variety of Japanese food, whether ramen, sushi, or tempura, and we were interested in learning whether our clients would find their palates pleased or disappointed in Japan. But I knew it would be tough. I can’t read Japanese symbols; I know nothing about Japanese etiquette; I have no knowledge of how Japanese people really eat. As such, I knew we needed a guide. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: a great guide can make a culture come alive. That is precisely what Yukari Sakamoto did for Jamil and me in Tokyo.
I found Yukari through her food blog, at FoodSakeTokyo.com. Yukari has an illustrious history as a sommelier and is the author of her own book, entitled Food Sake Tokyo, which is available for purchase online. Her husband is a fishmonger in Tokyo, and the two of them dedicate their lives to exploring, enjoying, and perfecting Japanese food. They’re even considering starting their own cooking school in Tokyo! But for now, Yukari is a guide, a wonderful, insightful guide, who can open your eyes to Japanese culinary traditions and give you the knowledge to eat less like a tourist.
We met Yukari at our hotel in Tokyo – the Peninsula. Please let me take a second as an aside and say that if you have the budget for it, please try this hotel. It’s phenomenal, and it’s a Japanese educational experience unto itself. The pristine cleanliness of the hotel, the polite unobtrusiveness of the service, and the advanced excellence of the technology are all perfectly Japanese. Literally, at the touch of a button, a machine in your room grinds coffee beans and makes you coffee, and so as not to disturb you, the hotel staff delivers your water and newspaper via little two-way cabinets.
The bathroom has a toilet that lifts its own lid, plays muffling sounds for modesty, and rinses your rear end from multiple different angles.
Finally, the control panel in the bedroom allows you to alter the mood lighting and open your draperies, among other features we never figured out. Basically, it’s that futuristic Japanese-ness we all imagine, and it’s pretty amazing. They simply have us beat, and it feels like you’re in a sci fi movie. – Anyway, we met Yukari there in the morning on our first full day in Japan. She asked to meet us at 8 AM, and I quickly balked, but she said we absolutely had to start early if we wanted to truly experience the culture. She was right.
Yukari taught us that morning about Japanese culture with its unusual attention to detail and commitment to perfection. She led us immediately into a 7-Eleven and explained that we could eat there every morning if we liked, because even in convenience store, the Japanese people only put out the highest-quality items. They simply refuse to compromise quality, regardless of the circumstance. And that’s how Jamil and I came to eat every breakfast at 7-Eleven, grabbing a rice ball or two out of convenience and spending probably less than $5 for a meal in a country that everyone told us was astronomically expensive.
After that quick exposure to fast eating in Japan, we headed over to the Tsukiji Market, the world-famous fish market, where restaurateurs have been known to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a beautiful Bluefin tuna. The Tsukiji Market pulsates with life.
There are restaurants of different varieties radiating from its central hub and countless potential purchasers roaming its halls. With Yukari, you get a special insight because her husband is a fishmonger. That means she knows every fish (and almost every fisherman) in the place. Yukari showed us how critical consumers take bits of fish and rub it between their fingers to test the fat content. She pointed out the rows of bags of fish lying in wait for their owners that testify to the honesty in Japanese society. These bags contain hundreds, even thousands, of dollars’ worth of fish, and they sit out in the open, to be picked up on the honor system. The honor system!?! Does that even exist in the United States anymore?? If so, I’m sure it’s regularly violated. However, Japan is relatively crime-free. People do not steal. They do not break the rules.
Through Yukari, we also learned about the Japanese penchant for perfection. We stood at the doors of Mitsukoshi department store when it opened and got to be some of the first people in the downstairs gourmet foods section. I can’t really think of words to describe Mitsukoshi’s selection because it’s fresher, more deluxe, and more exciting than any food store in the United States – or any of the 20 other countries I’ve visited. The fruit section bears witness to the Japanese obsession with flawlessness. A cluster of grapes, purple and fat, sparkles in a gilded gift box, while a lone apple stands under a spotlight, with neither bruise nor wrinkle. Yukari explained the source of these ideal specimens: artificial selection. Essentially, this is human-enforced Darwinism. The growers find the individual fruits or clusters of fruits that appear most desirable, then they trim away all other pieces in the vicinity, leaving just the chosen fruits to thrive, absorbing all nutrients, taking all water, and achieving prime form and flavor. As a result, one cluster of grapes may cost over $100, and an apple may be more than $50. A watermelon (which may be cube shaped to fit the small Japanese refrigerator)? That’s easily $150, as is a ripe, magnificent mango.
While these culinary rarities may seem mere novelties, they speak volumes about Japanese culture. These are the people so preoccupied with maintaining excessively high standards that they jump in front of subways and hang themselves to avoid dishonor. A crisp, smooth, spotless peach represents the ideal that each person is trying to achieve in Japan – and as in the growing of such perfect fruits, blemished counterparts must be eliminated. For Americans, these notions are hard to grasp. We embrace imperfection, even celebrate it. We want everyone to feel okay, to have a chance in the world. It’s okay if you’re mediocre; just do your best. In Japan, such notions appear to be rejected. You strive for the summit. Period.
Tip #2: Do not buy the JR Pass
You may do some research and learn that there’s an inexpensive travel alternative, called the JR pass. It’s like a Eurail pass, but not quite, as we learned. The JR pass allows passengers to use the so-so trains, not the newest Shinkansen, but the lower-end models. Additionally, the JR pass lets its users travel at specific times, so don’t think you can just get on whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t work on any metros, by the way, so don’t try to use it there. Furthermore, you have to realize how crappy it is AFTER you’ve activated it at the airport, the ONLY place you can activate it.
After we spend $600 apiece on the JR pass, we also spent about $600 apiece on individual tickets that let us travel when we wanted and on the fastest trains available. We could have gotten away with spending substantially less if we had just purchased the tickets on their own. What we surmised: If you’re not planning to trek relentlessly throughout Japan, the JR pass is probably not for you. We were going from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka, with small detours to Nara and Hiroshima. It was completely NOT worth it to buy the JR pass in our opinion!
Tip #3: Hire Kenzo Sato in Kyoto
Kyoto begs to be explored by bicycle, I promise it does. It’s a small, walkable town, and it is filled with tiny, ancient streets that seem overwhelmed by motor vehicles. This city has beautifully preserved architecture from feudal Japan and lovely temples on every corner. It deserves more than the cursory glance a ride in a car allows. On a bicycle, you can move somewhat quickly yet slowly enough to take in your surroundings. And, in Kyoto, no one is really speeding. It’s safe and relaxed, a perfect place to cruise.
For our bicycle exploration, we hired Kenzo Sato, a guide we found on Tours by Locals, but whom you can find on Facebook, as well. We highly recommend Kenzo. Not only is he personable and adorable, but he is also incredibly knowledgeable. Kenzo studied economics in college, and he hated it. After college, Kenzo floundered a bit, trying to find his calling, and it turned out to be in the tour industry. Today, Kenzo gives tours for high-end tour companies, but he also does his own thing, the bicycle tour.
I’m sure his ritzy tour is fantastic, but I can’t imagine enjoying anything more than the tour we did with him. His story about not being prepared to select a major right out of high school spoke directly to my soul because I see too many students trying to plot a lifetime academic path when they’re only 17. It is unrealistic and ridiculous, and while I’m glad Kenzo has found his calling, I can’t help but wonder how he might have done with a liberal arts curriculum under his belt to assist him in selecting his major.
With Kenzo, we learned about the differences between Shinto and Buddhism. We performed the ritual cleansing to enter the temples and pleased the gods with the smoke of incense. Furthermore, we enjoyed spicy, sour summer udon noodles, and Kenzo slurped with a level of gusto I never dreamed imaginable. Then, we had the chance to visit a real Japanese university, the Kyoto University, considered the best in the nation. Japanese students vie for acceptance, and Kenzo said that although he was always talented in school, he never stood a chance. I wonder if anyone we know could stand a chance!
That night, we made a strategic choice and asked Kenzo if he would take us to eat classic Japanese food. He selected an old, traditional izakaya, the type of establishment that caters to old men who have hours on their hands to linger and become real fixtures at a bar or sunken table. With Kenzo at our side, we got to plunge into real Japanese food, which was unbelievable. We sampled practically everything on the menu, and because of Kenzo’s Japanese heritage, the people in the restaurant accepted us, the only foreigners in the restaurant. As a woman, the experience was educational because I stood out more for my sex than for my color. There was not a woman to be seen, not even a Japanese woman working as a waitress. Nope, it was just me. The restaurant screamed sexism, and I’m not really a nut about equality; in general, I’m too busy to think about it. However, this is Japanese culture. It’s a man’s world.
Tip #4: Visit Nara, but just for a day
Nara is a strange place. It’s a haven for deer, and that means thousands of deer roam the streets and reign supreme in all corners of the town. Nara is a Shinto spiritual center of Japan that considers deer messengers of the gods. If you go to Nara, take the train and make sure to purchase some deer food as you near the shrines. It’s an enlightening experience to witness deer chasing down humans for snacks and hopping fences to approach potential suckers. There is no parallel to this place in the United States. The stark contrast between the fear exhibited by deer in the Texas, where people hunt them without remorse, and the blatant confidence on the faces of the deer in Nara, where humans defer to the deer, is an interesting study in the hierarchy of nature. It certainly makes you question whether our relationships with the natural world are fixed or fluid, depending upon our own behavior.
Tip #5: Try not to miss Hiroshima, but don’t expect an uplifting experience
Let’s face it, one of the darkest days in human history was August 6, 1945, when Americans used nuclear weapons for the first time. Americans warned the Japanese government that a tremendous attack was imminent, but no one understood the magnitude of that threat. Then, the Enola Gay released the bomb over Hiroshima, and in an infinitesimal fraction of a second, the world stood still. Thenceforth, the possibility of nuclear warfare loomed as a dark cloud over mankind, feeding the irrational fears of the Cold War and eroding the sense of personal security of an entire generation (maybe even two or three).
Hiroshima stands today as palpable evidence of the feasible extent of human cruelty. However, at the same time, it represents the resilience of Homo sapiens. The city of Hiroshima is modern, tall, and proud. It is not beautiful, but rather defiantly practical – a product of current technology and ideals. Atop the site of the bomb’s detonation lies the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, filled with information about the city prior to the attack and the horror that ensued thereafter. One particularly eerie artifact is wristwatch whose hands stopped dead in their circular course from the shock of the blast. The wearer of the timepiece was perhaps a punctual person, for the time on his watch was perfect, 8:16 (A.M.), precisely the minute when the Enola Gay unloaded its weighty cargo.
The gloomy past of Hiroshima may dissuade potential visitors, but I think it should do just the opposite. As people who teach others about the lessons of World War II on a regular basis, Jamil and I struggle to impart the value of remembering history, so as not to repeat its mistakes. Hiroshima flashes a bright red warning signal to all who darken its memorial’s threshold. In a textbook, it’s easy to gloss over the fact that a weapon, a piece of metal encasing a core of plutonium (or was it uranium? Or does it matter?), wiped out 100,000 people in a matter of seconds. However, in the raw monochromatic setting of the Peace Museum in the new city of Hiroshima, you cannot miss the antiwar message. It’s critical for rising generations to get this memo, especially as we continue to fight distant wars, deploying numerous troops and utilizing indiscriminately dangerous drone devices. Are there just wars? I’m sure there are, but every conflict needs to be taken seriously. Hiroshima serves as an implacable testament to that truth.
Tip #6: Ladies, take care in the subway
In Osaka, we had the chance to meet Ben Slater, also known as “Great English Ben.” Ben is a TV superstar and a teacher of English. We got to sit down with him and talk about how the English education business is going in Osaka, as well as some of the hidden aspects of Japanese culture. Remember, Jamil and I go on vacation to learn, not to party – although we have awesome times. We wanted nitty-gritty details, and that’s what Ben gave us.
Apparently, in Japan there is a huge problem with sexual harassment. Most women report inappropriate contact with men on the subways, especially during rush hour. Quiet, repressed businessmen unabashedly cop a feel on the subway – and when Ben described this circumstance to us, it suddenly made sense why the concierge in Tokyo discouraged me from riding the subway alone. The reason I felt this was important to include in this blog is that tourists need to be aware. Keep your wits about you when you travel. Remember that even the safest, most courteous cultures have their dark sides. Trust me, if Japan has a questionable underbelly, everywhere does.
Tip #7: Make Osaka a quick stop
We traveled to Osaka for two reasons: because it was the cheapest, easiest way to get to Seoul and because the city offers so many abroad programs. Osaka is an unusual city. It’s basically a town of consumers. The people there all work and make a decent amount of money, but they are known for spending it all on food and parties. The food was spectacular. They did things like grilling crab on the corners and griddling takomono (octopus balls) in the streets. However, culturally, the city is a bit of a vacuum. I can see in Osaka the industry of Japan at work. Consumerism drives the city’s activity, and the speed with which the urban center moves indicates that the efforts are certainly not wasted. Osaka is booming.
However, this is the Houston of Japan, from what I can tell. What does that mean? It means it’s a place to live and work more than to visit. Still, it’s got a train station that will knock your socks off and a shopping center that will blow your mind. It just doesn’t have much to mention from an educational standpoint.
Where to stay:
- Tokyo – The Peninsula
- Kyoto – The Hyatt Regency or the Ritz Carlton
- Osaka – The Intercontinental