Potty talk, trains and an ode to 7-11

Dear esteemed readers of Believeitohrnot,

Hello from Sendai, Japan, population 1 million plus.

Sendai is in the north of Japan and suffered a lot of damage due to a massive earthquake in 2011. We’re leaving tomorrow to visit another small Japan traditional Inn (ryokan) and then we’re hitting Tokyo for a week before we board the cruise ship.

This blog post is about toilets, trains and other random stuff you might find interesting.

First, let me start with some potty talk.

Japanese toilets are a complicated subject. You might have heard this before but it’s true. Japanese toilets do a lot of things besides serve as a “business vessel”.  Every toilet I’ve run into, even ones in public restrooms do a lot of magical things.  I’m not making this stuff up. They really do.

Here are some:

1.  First, when you sit down you are treated to a heated toilet seat, every single time. Sometimes you can adjust the temperature. Sitting on a heated toilet seat is a very pleasurable experience.

2. Second when you start doing your business a song starts playing so you don’t have to hear your loud disgusting potty sounds, and so others don’t have to hear your sounds. Cool, right?  Sometimes the ditty is a tropical rain forest composition, sometimes it’s the sound of water running, and sometimes it’s just lovely calm muzak type tunes.  You never know what you are going to get. But it’s all calming and pleasurable.

3. You always and I mean ALWAYS have buttons to clean different parts of you.  There are often so many buttons (all in Japanese of course) that  I don’t know what they really do. Sometimes Western style hotels have the buttons in English over them so I know they can 1) clean your backside  2) clean your front AND you can have the toilets spray at different temperatures and at different strength levels varying from strong to very gentle.

I’m sure they do many, many other things and we have 11 more days to figure them out! Also, every single toilet I’ve encountered even in public places like train stations are spotlessly clean and they never run out of toilet paper. I don’t know why they can’t be like this in the United States. After dealing with the stench and filth of Mexican bathrooms for months and months on end, this is very refreshing.  Mexican bathrooms are horrible.

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This is a typical panel located on a wall next to a toilet seat. 

In Train-ing

Traveling on trains in Japan is a real pleasure and going to the train station is even a bigger pleasure.

Japan train stations are phenomenal. First, they are just huge. I mean massive. Even the small train stations are large by U.S. standards.  Most are located in corners of shopping malls so there is always awesome shopping to be done while at the train stations. Imagine floors and floors and floors of great shopping. And each train station usually features no less than 15 high-quality restaurants, some where you can buy beautiful and very inexpensive bento boxes to take-away.  Don’t want bento? How about some fresh ramen, udon or tempura? Don’t want that, how about some sushi? Not in the mood for sushi how about a delectable fruit and ice cream parfait?  These multi-purpose stations are simply amazing.  You can eat, shop and drink coffee until your heart’s content. We always try to get to the station 45 minutes before our train to check them out.

It’s very easy once you get the hang of traveling throughout Japan, but it is daunting at first. To help make it easier and less expensive, we bought a 21 day Japan Rail Pass in Korea since tourists cannot buy them in Japan.  You have to buy it  before you get here. Once in the train station you simply located the JR counter, you wait in line for about 45 seconds (they have tons and tons of agents working there) and you tell the polite agent where you want to go next and around what time.  Then the agent prints out a 1/4 sheet of paper with the draft itinerary which you approve.  45 seconds later you have a reserved seat on the bullet train.  if it’s a local train,  no reservation is needed.  It’s the easiest thing ever once you get the hang of their massive system.  Navigating the subway stations are a challenge because they are so huge, but with practice it gets easier and Captain Andy has a great sense of direction so we’ve managed to get around just fine.

Ode to 7-11!

In the United States and in Mexico 7-11 stores are great places to pick up Cokes and chips and maybe a pack of gum. In Japan, 7-11 stores at completely different and they are on every single corner. People go to 7-11 stores to buy real food, well-made food, that’s healthy and fresh.  Because eating out in Japan can be expensive, we have found 7-11 a good and relatively healthy alternative for eating healthy and cheap lunches.  You can get freshly made bento boxes with fish, rice and pickles for about $6 and they will heat them up for you.  shirokiya_bento

You can also get small salads, tons of various types of fish cakes, fried chicken, steamed chinese buns, freshly made sandwiches and other treats.

It’s not the best food in the world, but it’s not the worst food either. I’m always impressed with the variety, selection and freshness.  They do so much takeout that they have to keep fresh food stocked.  They also have tons and tons of rice balls that make for a cheap and very filling snack

Tokyo Random Eats Foodicles 03 Onigiri Ikura Seven Eleven

One rice ball comes in each pack. They cost about $1.50. The ikura isn’t the best, but it’s not  bad. It makes for a nice snack.

I haven’t figured out the various kinds of rice balls they have yet, but I like the ikura ones the best (filled with salmon caviar).

In addition to 7-11 there are also other places that sell cheap take-out food like 7-11 and they are on every corner. They are called Family Mart and Lawsons.  Both are very similar.

We are still having a great tip and my next blog post will be from Tokyo before we board the Celebrity Millennium.

 

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Getting naked with a bunch of new friends

In Takayama, Japan, I got naked with dozens of strangers and rather liked it. Walking around naked in front of 50 or 60 other ladies took a little bit of getting used to, but I bared my butt with no buts about it.

I’m pretty much a nudist at heart. I really enjoy being naked, although I am definitely not an exhibitionist.  I’m just a girl from Michigan who grew up going to overnight summer camp and who learned early on not to be ashamed changing in front of others.  And while walking around naked in front of a ton of strangers took a bit of getting used to, it was manageable. Andy went to the men’s side (the two sides are completely separate) and enjoyed his first onsen experience, too.

In Japan, the culture of communal bathing is huge. Many homes don’t have the space for bathtubs, so a big part of Japanese culture is to go to a local communal bath for a dip. People don’t consider this strange at all. It’s something parents do with kids and it’s something Japanese people do with same-sex friends as a way to relax.

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Outside the hotel’s front door — a foot onsen!

Onsens are traditional spring-fed baths in many Japanese locations. Japan has over 2,300 hot springs, each with its own healing properties. Many onsens are located in rural river towns, often high in the mountains and fed by springs or fresh water diverted from rivers and streams, but some are in cities, as well.  Some onsens are fancy, others simple, and from what I’ve experienced and read about, the facilities are immaculate, clean and not one iota scuzzy or in disrepair.

We’re going to be visiting several onsens while in Japan because I love me a good bath.  In fact, I can’t wait to visit this kitschy place in Osaka called spa world. Take a look at the English translations. It’s the Raging Waters/Disneyland of the spa/bath experience, and I can’t wait to go — though it’s not at all the norm, nor not at all what a true onsen experience is all about.

At our hostel in Takayama, a fellow guest told us about a great onsen a 10-15-minute walk away, so we went to check it out.  It was located on the bottom floor of a very fancy hotel called the Green Hotel.  It was fun to see so many hotel guests (foreign and Japanese) walking around the hotel in traditional Japanese robes. Several guests were dining in them, and seeing the Western guests and Japanese guests mix in this way was cool. Anyway, at the hotel, for a grand total of $10 per person, non-guests could use their public onsen, and because the weather had been so rainy and cold, we decide to partake.

Onsen1

This was the women’s indoor bath. It had a beautiful wooden ceiling.

So how does this communal bathing thing work? Thanks to YouTube, I had an idea. There are tons of  videos designed to help foreigners learn proper onsen etiquitte. For example, never take your towel into the onsen with you. Big no-no. And do not go into the onsen without throughly scrubbing one’s self. No jumping into onsen, either. OK, I get it. Thanks, YouTube.

In addition, the Japanese have created helpful posters for dumbfounded tourists.

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More onsen deets …

Step 1: Undress at the lockers, then find the area of the personal cleansing stations. Look for the small wooden buckets and the wooden benches.

Step 2: Nestle your butt onto one of the wooden benches and fill up a small wooden bucket.  Toss the warm water over your head to get wet. Do this as many times as you want. I’d safely say I used 15 buckets to get wet because it felt so damn good.

Step 3: Soap up. Wash yourself like you have never washed yourself before using the provided bath products, which include soaps and shampoos. Now, let me just say a word about Japanese bath products. They freakin’ rock!  Every hotel we have stayed at provides high-quality shampoo, conditioner and body wash. Really high quality. It’s like nothing I’ve experienced at American hotels or European hotels.

(Quick aside:  The hotel where we are staying now (in Kanazawa) provides huge bottles of shampoo, body wash and conditioner in the shower AND not one but two sets of small travel sizes to take with you. And they provide free hair brushes, sewing kits, razors, toothbrushes, Q-tips, bubble bath and two sets of slippers, one for the hotel and another set to take with you if you want to.)

But I digress. My main point was that this particular onsen had great products to use for cleaning your body from head to toe.  I watched a lot of Japanese women happily scrubbing away with no embarrassment whatsoever, so I did too.

Step 4: Head for the communal baths. This particular onsen had a large indoor communal tub divided into two sides, one with bubbles and one without, each set for about 101 degrees and each easily fitting 25 people. They also had a beautiful outdoor pool carved into a rock garden and surrounded by trees, vegetation and stone artwork; the pool was irregularly shaped to create little alcoves of privacy, and there was also a small waterfall (of course). This large pool was also hot, but not as hot as the nearby “hot tub” — sort of the standard Marin-county variety, made of wood and shaped like a gigantic wine barrel, again surrounded by the rock garden, the waterfall, the trees, etc. Some onsens have indoor tubs only, but many have outdoor tubs, too. Time to submerge, relax, try not to get too hot and enjoy. If you do get too hot, there is a standard shower nearby for a quick, cooling rinse-off.

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The outdoor onesen was stunning. It faced a lovely waterfall and rock garden.

Step 5: After you’ve had enough of the baths, sit back down on the wooden stool and rinse off. Each station also had a hand-held shower nozzle to help with the job.

Step 6: Walk back to the locker room area and grab your towel and/or robe, and go to fancy “get-ready area.” Use the hairdryer, facial emulsifier, various lotions and sprays, Q-tips, sterilized hairbrushes and other nifty stuff they provide. Remember, this was all for just $10!

Step 6: Go to back to your hotel and fall into a relaxing sleep. (Although in our case we happened upon an amazing, Oakland/Portland-style coffee shop on the way back and settled onto to the couch for a siphon-coffee nightcap.)

In our upcoming travels — we still have about 20 more days in Japan! — we’re going to visit three different but very traditional Japanese inns, which are known as ryokans.  I’ll blog about them, too. All of them have onsens on-site, with both private and public tub areas. I can’t wait.

 

Life’s a bowl of cherry blossoms

Greetings from Nagoya Japan!  Nagoya is a huge city in Japan with a population of 2 million. It’s also home to the Nagoya Castle.

If i had to describe how my brain feels right now, I’d say it feels like a gigantic pillow of wet cotton candy!  The cherry blossoms we’ve seen so far have been awe-inspiring.  I hope you enjoy some of these photos from Kyoto. We enjoyed Kyoto so much, despite the weather.  It rained pretty much every day and we were very wet.

Kyoto is great city. I’ve heard it has 1800 shrines and temples within the city proper. Everywhere we went, we were rewarded with views of old wooden buildings, beautiful Buddhist temples, and spectacular Japanese gardens. They also have lovely Japanese temples. Then there were the cherry blossoms, the real reason we’re in Japan undertaking this awe-inspiring journey.  They dot so many Japanese cities.
bloosoms1Pink petals and pink powder puffs a-plenty greet us at each turn. Magical!

Sakura (cherry blossom) season is a very important part of Japanese culture.  Japanese people treasure this time of year and they are out in full-force enjoying the blossoms everywhere.

They bring food (or go to food carts) and then picnic with their friends underneath the cherry trees. it’s a lovely sight to see them enjoying their natural treasures.  

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These people were spotted at Nagoya Castle

We’ve done a lot of sightseeing since we arrived.  I brought my fit
bit with me and we are walking between 7-9 miles most days. At the end of the day my feet and legs are very sore, so are Andy’s but it’s worth it.

While in Kyoto, we stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment in the Gion district. While the location was fantastic, the one-room studio was very, very cramped and had absolutely no charm.  We made it work, but it wasn’t ideal. We had to climb two very steep flights of stairs to the second floor, and once we entered the cramped studio, there are no pictures or artwork on the walls and it was such a drab place.

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This is down by the river at night in Kyoto-Magical!

In fact, the bathroom was so small, only one of us fit at a time.

Morning Coffee

Each morning  have some coffee at a local cafe and then Andy scouts out our plans. Together we decide what attractions we want to see, and then he plots our route.  For those of you who might not know, I have the WORST sense of direction of anyone you’ll ever meet. I am always lost and have no internal sense of how to get from one place to another. So this job falls to Andy.  After 23 years of living with this, he’s very good-natured about this great shortcoming of mine.

So far he’s been a great traveling companion!  It’s nice that we get along so well.  I know that every relationship needs someone to lead and someone to follow and I think this is one thing that makes us successful traveling companions. I don’t want to be the leader and I can happily concede this task to Andy-San for the rest of our trip!

After some coffee, we begin our cherry blossom journey.  In Kyoto we had to flight huge crowds everywhere we went because Kyoto was jam-packed with tourists, especially Israelis. We met a lot of cool people from Israel!  There were people taking photos of cherry blossoms everywhere.  Also a lot of Japanese women rented kimonos and wore them throughout Kyoto and that was really a beautiful site to see.

cherrybloosomA few days ago we went to see a Japanese baseball game. Andy loves baseball.  Did you know that he used to be a baseball writer?  So far we’ve seen one game in Korea and we’re slated to see two more games in Japan. Japanese and Korean baseball fans are crazy loud!  There is not much talking or passive sitting. The fans are very engaged in the game. They clap and cheer pretty much non-stop and hit noisemakers called thundersticks together. They also eat and eat and eat. Soba, ramen, fried octopus balls, popcorn and even bento boxes. The stadiums we’ve seen have very large selections of food, much larger selections than they do in the United States, and everything is reasonably priced. No $10 beers like where the San Francisco Giants play. And they have sake, delivered by lovely sake girls carrying sake barrels on their backs.  I tossed one back.

Another highlight of our trip has been a traditional tofu (tasting menu) dinner we did. I’m so bummed that none of my photos came out. Each of the courses was amazingly prepared, all served on unique pottery,  I do realize that not everyone likes tofu, but Kyoto is famous for its tofu because the water is supposed to make it taste great. The prices for both of us was $106 and it was really worth it. Even Andy came away impressed by the service, the uniqueness of the presentation and the beauty of the meal. Most meals are not costing us anything close to that. I’ll write another blog post about costs,  but overall, food prices are reasonable. Not as cheap as a $1 quesadilla we get in Zihuatanejo, (lol) but decently priced by San Francisco standards. Tonight for dinner we spent $32.00 for us both.

Today we took the bullet train to Nagoya. It went 200 miles an hour!  It was so awesome. We reserved a seat yesterday, and it took us 32 minutes from Kyoto. We could see far in the distance fine, but it seeing things close up was much harder due to the trains speed.

Tomorrow we’re going to go to the place in Japan where they make plastic food models! Plastic models of food are very, very popular in Japan!  A lot of restaurants have plastic food models outside their restaurant windows.  This is a primary way Andy and i know what the restaurant serves.

plasticfood

I’m excited to visit the factories that make all this plastic food!

Sometimes we take pictures of the plastic food in the window, and then show the picture to the waitstaff so they know what we want to eat.  We’ll have to use this method to eat much more often when we get to cities where they speak less English.

After we see the plastic food factories, we will head to Takayama where they have a very famous cherry blossom festival. We will there for three nights. I’m pretty sure we’re going to miss the cherry bloosoms in Takayama because according to all weather reports, they haven’t even started to bloom yet. This is really too bad, but we knew this might happen when we booked this trip. We’ve been blessed to see them in Kyoto in full bloom–and to see some in Seoul. Maybe we’ll be lucky again. I’ll keep you posted.

More news later about this epic adventure.  I have so much more I want to tell you about how interesting Japan is and how much fun it has been to share this adventure with Andy, but I’m going to take a bath now!!!!   As many of you know, our place in Mexico doesn’t have a bathtub and I love baths. And our hotel room came with a really great amenity kit and I’m excited to put it to good use.

It pains me to sign off without sharing more about Japan but I’ll save some fun facts for another posting.

S

 

Feeling Seoul-ful

Greetings from Seoul, Korea!

If you are a faithful reader, you know this blog focuses on our adventures living and traveling in Mexico. But for the next five-plus weeks, Andy and I are in South Korea and Japan. Right now, we’re in our aLoft hotel room in the heart of Seoul (Myeong-dong), chilling out to some music while we wait for our laundry to dry. If you prefer to only read about Mexican-based activities, I take no offense. I’ll be back rapping about Mexico starting June 1, when we put our roots down in Morelia for four months.

First let me start with some good news. Last week, while in Oakland, I had some blood work and saw my U.S.-based oncologist, Dr. Liz Han, who reported that my cancer is still in remission! Words can’t possibly describe the relief Andy and I felt. We boarded the plane to Seoul two very happy campers.

Why Asia? Well, I’ve always wanted to do an epic cherry blossom journey through Japan. I really love ’em. I think they’re beautiful. But both times I previously visited Japan, it was outside of the prime cherry blossom window. Plus, Andy wasn’t with me.

Thus, this trip, which consists of six days in Seoul, one full month in Japan and then a two-week repositioning cruise from Yokahama to Vancouver. We’ll see friends in Vancouver, take a train to Seattle and drive back to Oakland, visiting friends and Andy’s sister in Astoria, Oregon, along the way. We’re set to fly back to Mexico in late May and move into our new digs in Morelia on June 1.

Being in Seoul is a bit of a fluke. We wanted to use frequent flier miles to go to Japan, but everything was booked. So we ended up in business-class to Seoul (12 hours from SFO) and on Friday (tomorrow) we’re taking a short flight from here to Osaka to begin the Japan portion of our journey.

Fate has smiled upon us, as Seoul is amazing and has become one of our favorite world-class cities.

  1. The subway system is fantastic. It goes everywhere and it’s cheap. An average ride seems to cost around 20 cents.
  2. A lot of people speak English, and most signage also uses English letters to spell out the Korean words. This is especially helpful on the subway, which also announces its stops in English.
  3. The shopping is inexpensive. There are tons of street markets, and alleyway after alleyway lined with shops of all kinds. And even high-end designer items are available for less than one would pay in the United States.
  4. The city is an amazing mix of old temples and modern architecture, ancient traditions and cosmopolitan culture, with lots of nature in the midst of it all and mountains all around.
  5. The food is great. Andy and I love Korean food. Ever heard of banchan?

Banchan are Korean small dishes served before the meal, and along with it. Usually they are various forms of vegetables, either steamed or pickled, but sometimes the offerings are fish cake, tofu, noodles. Last night we went to a hole-in-the-wall, all-you-can-eat banchan restaurant and loved it. All these small plates tasted great. They had brocoli with sesame oil, fish cake, tofu with a spicy red sauce, and cucumbers with a red paste. They also had tiny black beans. And whenver we finished one, another one replaced it. Yummy!

 

Here are some things we have done while in Seoul.

  1.  We walked and walked and walked. One day we walked almost 10 miles. Sore feet forced us to reel it in a little the next day.
  2. We saw cherry blossoms. The weather has been a bit on the cold side, and while sometimes the blossoms do explode into their glory at this time of year, nature has had a different plan this season. I think the full bloom is still a few days away, but we did see some lovely early bloomers, and we’re anticipating being in many places in Japan for peak viewing.
  3. I got two new pairs of glasses. Koreans are eyeglass crazy. Glass stores are everywhere, especially in the many underground shopping plazas, and they cost much less than one would pay in U.S.  I was soooo excited. I’ve had my current pair for more than three years and they don’t have transition lenses. It’s a hassle keeping track of my sunglasses in Mexico, so having a good pair of transition lenses wil be great.
  4. We drank a decent amount of coffee. We love coffeehouses and enjoy spending time in them, either reading or surfing the net on our phones (and maybe even talking a bit). Believe it or not, Seoul has more coffee cafes than San Francisco, and many of them are committed to crafting high-end, Portland-caliber coffee. On every block there are at least three or four shops, and many of them serve cold-brew or even nitro (my favorite). By the way, while we did visit at least one coffee cafe per day, it’s not as if we whiled away the hours (or even half-hours) there; there was too much to see and do!
  5. Went to see some traditional Korean temples. And a bunch of diverse neighborhoods, from a swanky street in Gangham (“Gangham Style”!) to a hip area around a college to a bunch of back alleys lined with pubs and restaurants. And we visited Korea’s largest market. It was filled with clothing and tons of great accessories stores. Did I mention the eyeglasses? They have some frames for as cheap as $10.00.  I may pick me up a few more spare pairs and get the lenses filled at a later date.
  6. Went to a professional baseball game, along with a 26,000 other fans (a sellout) on Sunday afternoon. It was very loud, as the fans are a part of the game at every level. They spent most of the game singing various cheer-songs and banging together thundersticks. Andy promised to get me a pair when we attend the Hanshin Tigers vs. the Tokyo Giants next week. Sweet!
    cherrybloosom

Tomorrow we’re off to Kyoto for five nights. We’re staying at an airBnb, a studio room that’s apparently tiny, but it’s in the amazing Gion district, and since good fortune has smiled upon us and it will be the peak of cherry blossom season while we’re there, we are happy to have nailed down this reservation before the forecast was made. Prices are now sky-high, and that’s even if you can find anything. The entire city is about 98 percent booked.

I’ll post from Kyoto next. We’re excited about the amazing sites there, the history, the cherry blossoms, the nature, eating tempura and tofu and green-tea noodles, and we’ll even be attending a first-night Passover seder at Chabad of Kyoto.

As for Seoul, if you ever have the opportunity to visit, jump on it. It’s clean, friendly and they have a fantastic mix of modernity (from buildings to culture to technology) with the feel and taste of old-style Asia. More soon!

stacey