A Trip to a Magical Place
By: Mike Richardson
Jerine, Rachel & I were fortunate enough to be able to join Daniel & Melissa in Japan for 2 weeks to meet his lovely mother Shukue and to celebrate the final leg of their 10 month magical mystery tour around the world. At the risk of treading unintentionally into the world of gratuitous hyperbole, it was as close to a perfect ending as we could have ever hoped for.
Here are my key takeaways –
The Japanese Culture –
I was born in the Fall of 1956 on a US Military base just outside of Tokyo. Since our family was there only two short years, I really don’t remember anything about it.
However, when my Mom would share her memories with us later in life, a subtle light would shine in her eyes and a soft smile would spread across her face as she described this mystical Land of the Rising Sun.
A place where there is a well-defined collection of sensible behavioral norms that people actually live by all the time.
Where people assume the very best intentions of each other.
Where people demonstrate the utmost respect for each other; regardless of who you are, what you look like, or where you come from.
Where people take great pride in the way they conduct themselves, regardless of who’s watching or not.
Where an elegant form of grace and modesty is artfully blended with an understated self-confidence and calling attention to yourself is simply not acceptable.
And where people feel safe from harms way all the time; morning, noon or night.
Honestly, I didn’t think a place like that still existed in today’s world. Yet after our most recent two week adventure in Japan, I can say with confidence that magical place is indeed alive and well.
Whether it was wandering through a small town outside of Hiroshima or taking in a Sumo wrestling tournament in Nagoya or visiting the ancient temples of Kyoto or experiencing the bustling streets of Tokyo or even at the jam-packed World of Disney, people were simply wonderful.
As seen through the eyes of a foreigner, it was quite refreshing to rediscover that proud, time-honored societal tradition we used to have in America alive and well in Japan.
Conversely, it was very sad to have such a stark reminder that common courtesy, mutual respect and self-governance for your actions has become such a rarity in the USA.
I came home with a much needed and overdue reminder to evaluate my own day to day behavior to make sure I’m living up to the aspirational expectations that Japanese people live under every day.
Maybe we can all start a grassroots movement to be polite and civil to each other again. Wouldn’t that be something …
The Japanese Food –
As noted above, we were exposed to a lot of the culture and experienced many different aspects of the everyday lives of Japanese people. That said, one of our favorite things was being able to sample the scrumptious food they eat every day.
From the fresh sashimi and sushi places on seemingly every corner,
we discovered that tuna & salmon were arguably the most spectacular choices on the menu while abalone is … shall we say … an acquired taste.
We sampled every type of Ramen you could possibly imagine highlighted by our trip to an actual Ramen museum in Tokyo that served 9 variations of this heavenly dish. Daniel and I mustered up the wherewithal to make it through 5 iterations before we surrendered to our unabashed gluttony.
Daniel insisted we try Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki which literally means “grilled as you like it”. It is a savory pancake-like creation which looks like a giant-sized omelet with all sorts of tasty stuff inside, most of which I couldn’t identify … nor wanted to. It was as fun to watch it being prepared as it was to eat.
To understand what we ate for breakfast you must stop thinking about all the healthy crap we usually try to eat in the morning; hard boiled eggs, protein shakes, oatmeal, grapefruit, v8 juice (dating myself with that one), Sausage McMuffins with egg at Mickey D’s (oops- that one just randomly slipped out).
Now for a brief moment, close your eyes and try to envision having two scoops of ice cream with your smoking hot buttery pancakes first thing in the morning.
Seriously. That happened.
Once we saw that on the menu at a small neighborhood diner in Kyoto, there was just no stopping us.
We were a team on a mission.
Ice cream on toast. Ice cream on pancakes. Ice cream on top of coffee. We went back to this place three days in a row and frankly, we did it in an unmistakably unapologetic manner! As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do 😎
We also went to a tasty Japanese Barbecue place where they bring the meat you order right to the table and you grill it yourself at your table. Kinda like having a Sunday afternoon barbecue in your living room except you don’t have to clean up. Cool experience!
But make no mistake about it.
The creme de la creme of everything we ate in Japan was THE VERY BEST Wagyu steak in the world. This intensely marbled meat comes from the local Japanese Black cows and is SO tender it literally melts in your mouth.
You order it in grams and the chef dices it into bite-sized cubes with a very light touch of seasoning before grilling it on a cast iron stovetop right at your seat at the counter.
Mark my words on this – if you love a great steak like I do and haven’t tried Wagyu yet, you gotta do this at least once before you hang up your cleats for good. But buyer beware, take a deep breath and get your checkbook ready as this stuff is ridiculously expensive. Like 3 times more costly than the best filet mignon you usually order at your local steakhouse.
But hell, you only live once 😎
Other Stuff of Note:
As we all know, tipping is not a part of the Japanese culture as they have a fundamental belief that you pay a fully disclosed price for the services you consume and the type of customer experience you receive for that service is just a matter of pride. And that service is consistently excellent.
Sometimes the obvious solution sounds so simple, right?
Jerine and I decided to practice eating with chopsticks for a week before we arrived because hell was going to freeze over before we were going to ask anyone for a fork in Japan.
Of course she mastered it in a fraction of the time it took me to just become something a small step above a public embarrassment to my children.
So I arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun with an ever-so fragile level of confidence that I could actually twist and turn these contraptions without dropping food on the floor when the bright lights turned on and I had to perform under the pressure of public scrutiny.
So we get off the plane in Hiroshima and drive to Daniels childhood home. Shukue has a lovely traditional dinner prepared and we all sit down exchanging the usual pleasantries. My heart is beating faster than normal as I sneak a quick glance down to my place setting secretly hoping to see a fork but it was not to be.
Just those damn sticks.
Time to put my game face on and man up.
Dinner begins and it happened – I choked. No other way to describe it. Somehow, I forget everything I learned about using chopsticks as Shukue and her husband Haeun curiously watch me fling food around my plate with the zest and expertise of a toddler learning how to eat food for the first time.
It is so bad that Shukue finally says to Daniel, “Oh just get him a fork” which of course turns up my performance anxiety meter to Defcon 1!!
“No, I got this” I say and it literally gets stone cold silent around the table until I’m able to corral my first glob of rice into my mouth.
It got better from there but geez …
The Bathroom Experience-
Ok this may sound odd to you but I’m just gonna say it anyways – I love Japanese toilets. The seats are heated. Music plays while you take care of your business. It flushes itself. And my oh my, the multi-jetted spray options for the bidet feature brings the Japanese toilet experience to another level.
Honestly, I found myself making up reasons to use the bathroom just so I could use the bidet feature. It was that good. And these bad boys are everywhere; in parks, restaurants, train stations.
Now for the Bathing Experience –
Picture yourself in this outwardly modest society with these super polite people and then imagine going to a shared bathhouse with total strangers for your nightly wash down.
It happens. Everywhere. Not mandatory of course but not uncommon either.
Of course the men are separated from the women and the Japanese people have long standing traditions that totally explain their reasoning for this but … not me. No thank you.
Railway System –
This system is a great example of what a well thought out public transportation system can be. From local trains that take you anywhere one stop at a time to Express trains that take you there faster to the Bullet trains that fly like the wind, this system is cheap, reliable, clean and safe. And thank goodness for these trains as the traffic in Tokyo is out of control just as it is in New York.
In Closing –
To get the opportunity to be a small part of Daniel & Melissa’s great adventure is a true blessing and I find myself somewhat torn about it finally coming to an end.
On one hand I saw up close how relaxed and happy they are after 10 months of being together literally every day and exploring the world. I learned so much from them as they shared all of their colorful stories with us and found myself getting excited as they traveled to each new destination. There was a big part of me that just wanted to say, “You guys are doing great. Just keep going!”
On the other hand, the more sensible side of me said the rest of their lives are waiting for them back home and it cannot be over-stated how important having a “home” is as a critically important part of everyone’s life.
It is easy to see that they are coming back as even better, more well-rounded versions of the wonderful people who left last October; as individuals and as a couple. We all look forward with great interest to see what they will do next.
Whatever that new adventure may be, SoySauceonRice will live forever in our memories.
Thanks for that D & Liss 😎