Here’s a collection of some of the signs I encountered during my visit to Japan in March. Clearly there is a need for more accurate Japanese to English translation!
Here’s a collection of some of the signs I encountered during my visit to Japan in March. Clearly there is a need for more accurate Japanese to English translation!
The biggest bucket list destination on my list has always been Japan, so when I finally went there in March of this year, I set out to absorb as much of the country as I possibly could, traveling through Northern, Central, and Southern Japan over the course of 14 days. I had a bit of a concern about encountering odd food items, but since I grew up eating Japanese food, I felt pretty confident that I would fare well through most of the trip.
There are many Japanese food items which I love to eat, and some of them are comfort foods for me. Things like manju, chawanmushi, umeboshi onigiri, tsukemono, and just plain old gohan (rice) give me a sense of great joy whenever I eat them, because they take me back to my childhood. I knew that I could always order my favorite food items without any issues.
One thing I noticed immediately was that the sashimi I ordered in Japan was not only far superior to most of the sashimi I have had in the states, it was also much cheaper. What would cost me about $25 in the U.S. ran only $11 to $13, and the fish was incredibly fresh and flavorful. The food items which were outrageously overpriced were imported fruits like baby watermelon ($15), strawberries ($30 for 6 jumbo fruits), tomatoes (also $30 for 6 large fruits), and I wasn’t interested in those items anyway.
I wasn’t about to limit myself to safe food items like sashimi and ramen, but I also had some trepidation about encountering bizarre, Fear Factor type foods. What also added to the challenge was the fact that some restaurants which didn’t give a hoot about gaijin (foreign) customers refused to put out menus in any language other than Japanese. So I struggled to decipher a few menus while I was in Japan, searching for the kanji and kana I knew, like 肉 (niku, or meat), 魚 (sakana, or fish), ご飯 (gohan, or rice), and 野菜 (yasai, or vegetables).
The first evening I was in Japan, I walked to a quaint little restaurant near the hotel I was staying at in in Ota-ku. The proprietors were lovely, gracious, spoke a bit of English, and also served a tasty chirashi bowl which I happily devoured. I was tempted to return to the same restaurant the following night, but I wanted to explore, and ended up in a very bizarre restaurant which featured the first nihongo-only menu. The instant I walked in, the proprietors and guests all stared at me, making me very uneasy. At that point though, it was late, I was hungry, and I needed to eat, so I put up with the icy reception. One table in particular was quite loud, and one middle-aged man clad in manga covered pajama pants was making the most noise at that table. He kept talking and cackling while taking long drags off his cigarette, creating clouds of off-putting fumes which wafted over to where I was sitting. There was no way I would have a relaxing evening at this place!
The proprietress handed me a menu and mumbled something very rapidly in Japanese, then shuffled off hurriedly. I took one look at the menu, took a deep breath, then scanned the menu for kanji I could recognize. I ended up ordering a bowl of rice, tsukemono, edamame, gyoza, and a whole fish which was so tiny that I had to order 3 more to fill up on the meal. The food was ordinary, unimpressive, and it was incredibly expensive. Thank goodness I was leaving for Sendai the following morning!
On March 9th, I took the shinkansen from Haneda Tokyo to Sendai, and once there, I was determined to have a bowl of ramen. I had fantasized about eating ramen while in Japan, and I wasn’t about to wait any longer. Luckily, I was able to find a tiny yet popular ramen house in Sendai, and I was rewarded with a spectacular bowl of ramen.
Later that evening, I became hungry again and began to scan the area for a place to have dinner. My travel companion noticed a restaurant which was perched on the second floor of a building and suggested we try it, so we trekked upstairs for what would become the most bizarre and costly meal of the entire trip. The menus were only in Japanese, and the waitstaff spoke absolutely no English. We ended up ordering sake, rice, gyoza, sashimi, chicken skewers, and tsukemono.
The tsukemono, sashimi, and chicken skewers were not what we were expecting, and our taste buds were definitely offended by the experience. The tsukemono featured vegetables like eggplant which, in our estimation, does not produce an ideal pickle, due to its mushy texture and bland flavor. Next was the sashimi, which included some very strange seafood selections which were a very different texture and flavor from what we have enjoyed, even in other restaurants throughout Japan. Let’s just say there were some neglected morsels of seafood after we relinquished the plate.
Lastly, there were the chicken skewers, which were also quite surprising. There were eight skewers, but only two had chicken muscle meat, and those two consisted of chicken thigh and not chicken breast. Two skewers were chicken skin, two were chicken kidney, and two were chicken gizzards. I was a sport and ate one kidney skewer, but I could not tolerate the gizzards or chicken skin, and my buddy wouldn’t touch any of them. We learned our lesson from that restaurant and avoided ordering any chicken skewers for the remainder of our trip, because we noticed that all chicken skewer dishes in Japan seemed to include the undesirable organs which we were served while in Sendai.
The next day, I had another bizarre food experience which almost completely turned me off from ikura, or salmon roe. I visited the Mitsukoshi in Sapporo, and saw numerous vendors selling the bright orange, salty roe which was my grandmother’s favorite. I alighted upon one vendor whose ikura looked especially fresh, and was offered a sample, which was absolutely divine. I promptly selected a tray and paid for it, not noticing the mentaiko which was also on the tray. For those of you who don’t know what mentaiko is, just click here for a description. Despite the fact that I had only heard about mentaiko, and didn’t know that it was sold with the roe sac. I quickly found out that it was tough, rubbery, very strong in flavor, and so disgusting that I spat out the first bite, drank a bunch of green tea, then brushed my teeth to get rid of the taste. They say that people either love or hate mentaiko, and I found out I am definitely a hater!
Next week I will be in Japan for two weeks, and though it hasn’t quite sunken in yet, I will finally see the country which is responsible for 50% of my DNA makeup and many of the sensibilities and habits which were instilled in me when I was little.
For over 50 years, my desire to visit Japan was coupled with remorse over even wanting to visit without my mother, since she has never once visited the country from which her parents came. Even more guilt-inducing was thinking about how in the world I could believe that my diluted, half-Japanese self had any right to visit Japan if my mother never got a chance. For those of you who are wondering why I am not taking my mother on this trip, she is 87 years old, wheelchair-bound, incontinent, and actually refuses to take any trips anywhere due to her weary, broken state. I know that she will live vicariously through me, as I retell the stories and experiences which I am about to create on this journey to the motherland.
Over the course of 14 days, I will visit Sapporo, Sendai, Kyoto/Osaka, Nara, Nagoya, Hiroshima, Fukuoka (the prefecture which my grandfather was from), Kumamoto (the prefecture my grandmother was from), Okayama, and Tokyo. Most of my destinations within the land of the rising sun will be reached via Shinkansen, also known as the bullet train.
Because samurai blood runs deep on my grandfather’s side (we are also ultimately descended from the Imperial Family of Japan), I look forward to seeing the older architecture in some areas, and also plan to visit the cemetery in Fukuoka where some of my ancestors are buried. But what I look forward to more than anything else while I am in Japan is the FOOD.
Many Japanese foods, like chawanmushi, mochi, takuan, sukiyaki, agedashi, ramen, sashimi, anpan, and manju, are my comfort foods, and since I will have all types of Japanese cuisine available to me to sample for two weeks, I have a feeling my taste buds will be very happy. I also absolutely adore seafood (perhaps I was a cat in a past life), and will probably be eating it every single day while out there, which is why I will also continue to take chlorella daily to control the mercury levels in my body.
Once I return home, I look forward to creating a blog post in which I discuss my adventures in Japan. It will truly be a blessing to visit the exquisitely beautiful country within which my family’s roots sit.
Over two decades ago, my first seemingly dreamy and unattainable goal was to be involved in a yearly Japanese-American festival in Los Angeles known as Nisei Week, which was established back in 1934. Aside from a period of seven years between 1942 and 1948, during which World War II raged and carried a solid and jarring impact on the Japanese-American community, the Nisei Week festival has continued to run throughout the decades.
As a child, I remember seeing the Nisei Week Queen and court each year, and it became a dream of mine to be selected as a court member when I got older. However, I got sidetracked by life and didn’t bother to enter the competition for the local queen selection until the year I turned 25. I was stunned when I was chosen as the Queen of my community center (the San Fernando Valley Japanese American Community Center, or SFVJACC) for that year.
Once I was selected, I spent the next three months in regular meetings with the queens from the other eight participating communities, meetings in which we would practice all the routines for the beauty pageant which would mark the beginning of that year’s Nisei Week. We competed in that pageant for over 1,000 audience members in a 3 hour event, and though I didn’t win the Nisei Week Queen title, I was happy with being a Nisei Week Princess. We rode on floats, visited businesses, and fostered good will throughout the Japanese-American community.
When we were on stage, on parade floats, and on visitations, we would wear our sashes, a definite marker which identified us all as queen and court. On some occasions, we would wear our crowns, and were either clad in matching dresses, or in kimono.
Queen? Princess? I guess so, at least in pageant terms!
Back in 2014, I made a promise to myself that I would visit a foreign country, preferably one I had not visited before, every even-numbered year. I designated every even year primarily as a means to give myself enough time to prepare my schedule and my finances to be able to travel every other year, and I also chose that interval because I felt a strong itch to visit a foreign country in 2014.
Why was I struck with this idea in 2014? One reason was that I suddenly realized that year that I had not taken a bona fide vacation since 2007. The second and more compelling reason stemmed from deep conversations I had with my dear friend and meditation teacher, who was quickly succumbing to a very aggressive and deadly brain tumor. On more than one occasion during my visits with him, he told me, “Don’t wait to do the things you have always wanted to do, because you might run out of time to do them.”
What Rob told me really got me thinking. I thought of how my mom had a number of big dreams dashed because she had always pushed them to the side, believing that she either didn’t deserve to pursue them, or that her dreams would never come to fruition. For example, she had entertained a strong interest in travel, but she always made excuses for why she couldn’t go on vacations or getaways. In fact, the only “vacations” she ever took were when one of her siblings fell ill or died, and she had to fly to Hawaii to visit. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t think such trips should ever count as vacations, especially since they are so emotionally difficult. It’s not like my mom went to Hawaii and had a grand time at the funerals she attended.
Though I had traveled to various destinations for reasons other than the death of a relative, I knew that I had also fallen into a similar trap of making excuses about being too busy to take a vacation. So in the Spring of 2014 I decided to travel to Prague to compete in an IFBB Pro event, and figured that I would also visit Hungary, which was on my bucket list of destinations to visit.
My friend Rob passed away on April 29, 2014. After spending several weeks grieving for him, I decided to act upon my proposed travel plans to Eastern Europe. As I was planning the trip, I realized that since I would be in prep for a bodybuilding show, I wouldn’t be able to enjoy Prague as a vacationing traveler, and also realized that I would only have a couple of days to explore Hungary. I ultimately decided not to compete, and instead booked a 7-day trip to Hungary which I completed in September of 2014.
Hungary turned out to be just as magical as I imagined it to be, and I honestly felt like I was honoring my dearly departed friend Rob when I was there. By an incredible stroke of luck, I was able to travel to Sydney, Australia and Bali the following month. Satisfied with having traveled to 3 new countries, I resolved to go somewhere new in 2016.
In March of 2016, I flew to Costa Rica, adding to my list of foreign destinations and keeping my promise to Rob and myself to travel internationally in an even year. After my Costa Rica trip, I wasn’t able to save money consistently for a trip in 2018, but whenever I had a chance to set something aside, I did.
I’m proud to say that I have fulfilled my promise yet again this year, when I traveled to the Maldives in September, and to Thailand earlier this month. Both trips were absolutely amazing, and I feel spiritually richer because of those experiences. I love the fact that I am able to say that I added six new countries in the last 5 years to my foreign travel roster, and I have every intention of adding to the list in 2020. My goal is to save up for a trip to Japan in 2020, but if I am unable to save enough money to travel to that destination, I will select a more reasonably priced excursion so that I can stay on track with my travel goals.
For those of you who are curious about what foreign countries I have visited, here is the list:
Mexico (1986, 1989, 1992)
Costa Rica (2016)
Australia (Sydney) (2014)
It will be exciting to think about what countries I will visit in the future. Some of the countries on my list include: Fiji, Bora Bora, Spain, Egypt, Vietnam, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Scotland, Kenya, New Zealand, Nepal.
For those of you who dream of traveling, but who always seem to find a roadblock when trying to plan a trip, how about setting a similar goal to the one I have set for myself? You would give yourself at least a year to save up money between trips, and you would be able to travel to destinations you’ve always wanted to see.
My mother’s family believes very strongly that departed spirits return to the physical world in winged form. This belief was handed down to me, and is so deeply ingrained that I am always keenly aware of the presence of birds and insects I encounter when a loved one has recently passed away.
When my favorite aunt passed away last December, I didn’t feel her energy around me at all. This was in stark contrast to when my dear friend Rob Willhite passed away in April of 2014. Right after Rob died, he hovered around my meditation table and my bed, and left coins on my bed, bathroom counter, desk chair, and car seat. His energy was heavy, palpable.
I began to accept the possibility that I wasn’t as spiritually connected with my aunt as I had always thought. I traveled to Oahu the third week of January and spent the days leading up to my aunty’s funeral getting reacquainted with the island. I still felt no connection with my aunt’s spirit.
The day of the funeral arrived with a vengeance, spewing rain and strong winds which were the exact opposite of the balmy, sunny days which led up to it. The funeral service was odd, and seeing my aunt’s embalmed corpse was alarming to me. It was definitely an empty vessel.
For the first time ever, I served as a pallbearer. As we carried the casket out to the hearse, the rain began to fall again. By the time the funeral procession had arrived at the cemetery, the rain was steady, and the winds were so fierce that it threw a few of the folding chairs at the site into the air.
During the burial ceremony, the priest stood in front of the casket, with his back to the interment site which awaited my aunt’s body. While he spoke, the winds whipped furiously, pushing the rain into us and rendering the protection of the tent we were sitting under completely useless. One particularly assertive gust of wind hit, and I looked up despite risking getting a face full of rain. As soon as I glanced up, a single white dove flew up from the exact position where my aunt’s final resting place would be, made a sweeping arc behind the priest, and flew up into the sky. That was the sign I was looking for. Aunty was there.
The next evening I returned to Los Angeles, and because I was battling a wicked case of bronchitis, I chose to sleep on the sofa downstairs so that I wouldn’t wake anyone upstairs. By some miracle I actually got a decent night’s sleep that night. When I woke up the next morning, I put my left foot down onto the floor, and noticed a single white feather right next to my foot. Another sign.
That feather is now in a pouch with a mala my friend Rob gave me.