Americans Eating in Japan

 

My son and Brother ready for dinner after a relaxing, hot bath.

My son and brother ready for dinner after a relaxing, hot bath at our hotel in Takaoka, Japan.

The three of us who traveled to Japan recently liked to think of ourselves as fairly adventurous eaters, partial to spicy, exotic food.  But we were in for some surprises.  For example, we found that none of us really likes fish eyeballs for breakfast.

We had several traditional Japanese dinners at the ryokan, Japanese-style hotels, where we stayed.  Usually

A poster advertising sushi of various kinds.

A poster advertising sushi of various kinds.

there is a crab leg to start off, followed by various kinds of fish, sashimi (raw fish), soup, and maybe a stew of some kind. Plus rice, pickled vegetables, and tea. The first night of this was not unpleasant, except in my case, for the sashimi. I just couldn’t take the texture of the fish. My brother dared me to eat it, and I had the devil of a time getting it down, and keeping it down.

The second time we had this kind of dinner, the “stew” was all white, slimy things of unknown origin that none of us found appetizing. The worst part was when they served us almost the exact same menu for breakfast–with no coffee. I repeat, NO coffee. We were unhappy with this particular hotel anyway, and had no trouble ditching our reservation for the next night and hightailing it out of there. Fortunately, most train stations have coffee and bakeries these days.  I have to confess I ate more croissants than fish eye balls on this trip.

Japan lives by the sea, and sushi and sashimi are extremely popular.  One new twist we saw in Tokyo is “conveyor belt” sushi.  In this kind of restaurant, little dishes of food are put on a conveyor belt that goes around the counter where people sit.  People take whatever they like off the conveyor belt and eat. Quick and handy.

 

Another evening in Matsumoto, we ducked into a yakitori (grilled chicken) bar for dinner.  People sit around the counter and watch the grill master do his magic.  The first skewer brought out to us was announced as “chicken tail.” I thought, oh no, but knew I had to eat it.  A perfectly seasoned and grilled little packet of fat slid down my throat. Chicken leg and neck (who knew you could eat the neck?) came out on other skewers.  The master seasoned each offering precisely, like an artist at work.  His movements were dance-like as he held the shaker over the chicken parts in a ritualistic display of pride in his craft.  After a few beers, the noise level in the tiny bar went up and we were getting to be old friends with everyone. When we left, everyone waved and said goodbye.

We had one dinner of katsudon (fried pork steak) like the ones I remember from 45 years ago that was

A ubiquitous vending machine painted with Matsumoto Castle.

A ubiquitous vending machine painted with Matsumoto Castle.

especially good, but I couldn’t find many of the kinds of restaurants I so vividly remembered.  Instead there were hamburgers and fries, pizza, and KFC fried chicken.  We had a hamburger made of marbled Hida beef in the mountain town of Takayama. Food preferences have changed dramatically in Japan since I was there as a young woman, not necessarily for the better. I saw a fair number of overweight Japanese people, which simply didn’t exist when I was there last.

Of course in Tokyo you can find anything, and fortunately there was a good Indian place near our hotel to satisfy our need for heat. Convenience stores like 7-ll saved us on more than one occasion with a good selection of salads and sandwiches at cheap prices.  Before we’d get on the train, we often stopped at 7-11 to get our lunch supplies and other snacks.

We tried to keep it simple, and cheap, when we could, so we did not seek out the many fine dining establishments Japan has to offer.  Other people will have very different culinary experiences, no doubt. But for us, a backpack full of snacks is always essential. Part of the adventure of traveling is that you often don’t know where or when you will next eat, nor certainly what it will be. Bon Apetit!

Cooling off the drinks with cold mountain water near a rice paddy in the village of Shirakawago.

Cooling off the drinks with cold mountain water near a rice paddy in the village of Shirakawago.

Mary in Japan, 7-5-3

Children dressed up in their finest for the shichi-go-san (7-5-3) festival where they will be blessed by the priests.

Children dressed up in their finest for the shichi-go-san 7-5-3) festival where children ages seven, five and three will be blessed by the priests at the temple.

One of the pleasures of visiting Japan are the many festivals and cultural events that occur all times of year. You can plan your trip around catching a specific pageant, or you can just bump into them by chance, like I did recently when I visited Japan with my son and younger brother.  There are 15 national holidays in Japan ( http://www.japanspecialist.co.uk/travel-tips/national-holidays-in-japan/)  and many more regional festivals and family celebrations.  We happened to be in Japan during the Shichi-Go-San season, or 7-5-3.  This is a period of time when children aged seven, five and three are taken to Buddhist temples for special blessings.

A vision in gold for Shichi-go-san.

A vision in gold for Shichi-go-san.

As we made our rounds of fabulous temples with smoking incense burners and prayers

A little boy in his formal outfit for his temple blessing.

A little boy in his formal outfit for his temple blessing.

fastened to trees, we ran into various family groups taking their brilliantly dressed children to the priests. Some of the children seemed to feel awkward in their resplendent formal wear, and at least one sat right down on the curb and refused to go further with big tears in his eyes. But most hugged their bags of special candy and smiled.

While we were at Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, a solemn funeral procession passed through the courtyard. The widow was dressed in white, and a priest shaded her with a huge red umbrella.

Funeral procession at Meiji Shrine.

Funeral procession at Meiji Shrine.

We traveled from Tokyo to Nagano, where the 1998 Winter Olympics were held, by  bullet train, or shinkansen.  These are the fastest trains in the world, with a super aerodynamic design (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lm1nzUU8nEI).  We loved the bullet trains!  Not only do they flash through the countryside at about 200 mph, they are also quiet, comfortable, and always on time.  We bought Japan Rail Passes which gave us 14 days of unlimited train travel throughout the country for about $420.00 each.  These passes can only be bought online by foreigners. They are not available for Japanese citizens.  Go to http://www.jrpass.com for more information.  Announcements at the stations are made in English, Chinese, and Japanese, as well as for all stops on the train itself.  I was grateful for this because 45 years ago when I took the first bullet train from Kyoto to Tokyo, there was only Japanese.  International travelers have increased tremendously in Japan, due no doubt to services like these.

Two bullet trains wait at Tokyo station.

Two bullet trains wait at Tokyo station.

 

We spent a few hours in Nagano visiting Zensoji Temple. Just catch the bus right at the train station, and go straight up the street a mile or two to this magnificent place.  Zensoji is famous for taking in travelers on the road, and they run several hostels in the mountains nearby. The next night we spent at one of these temple hostels in the little town of Takayama.  Stay tuned for more on this later.

Mary’s Trip to Japan

Could it be? Yes! It's Godzilla towering over Tokyo.

Could it be? Yes! It’s Godzilla towering over Tokyo. We could follow him home to our hotel in Shinjuku.

I spent the last two weeks of October 2016 away from the political campaign, which alone would have been worth the trip, traveling around Japan with my adult son and younger brother.  My son was born in Tokyo 45 years ago, but we left when he was four months old.  All these years I have dreamed of taking him back to see the land where he was born.  And I finally did.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in 45 years, myself certainly included. In the next few posts, I’ll tell you what we saw, what has changed, and what has stayed the same, at least from my perspective.

A gray day in Shinjuku from my hotel window.

A gray day in Shinjuku from my hotel window.

We flew into Tokyo, nonstop from Dallas, about 13 hours.  We landed at Narita Airport where we changed money, exchanged our vouchers for Japan Rail Passes, and caught the N’EX (Narita Express) train straight from the airport into Shinjuku, about 90 minutes away.  All seats are reserved on the train, but they give you one immediately when you exchange your voucher for the rail pass.  In our case, pretty much door to door service from the airport to the hotel, which was only about five blocks from the train station.

For travelers thinking of going to Japan, let me say that Shinjuku station is one of the largest and busiest in the entire world.  It will pay to study a map of where your hotel is (in Shinjuku or any place else in Tokyo), and find the correct exit at the station.  Going out the right exit will save you probably $30.00 in yen in cab fare.  There are about four floors of

Little Piggy beckons you to come in.

Little Piggy beckons you to come in.

shopping malls and food courts in the station, plus a major business center.  Who knows how many train lines come in there, but it’s a lot. There are hundreds of thousands of people there at any given moment.  The place can be difficult to navigate when you’ve been traveling about 20 hours, dragging your luggage around, and completely dazed.  But once you find a cab, they can take you straight to your hotel without any hassle.  Of course if you go out the wrong side of the station, the cab will have to drive all the way around, and that will add up, but you really won’t have any other problem getting to the hotel.  Show them the address written on paper, if possible.

Our experience was that all hotels and ryokans we stayed in had English-speaking staff.  English is pretty much everywhere in Japan now, whereas when I was there as a young woman, there wasn’t a word.  We stayed in an APA hotel, which is a modern chain with moderate prices.  As we learned, there are two APA hotels in Shinjuku, and as luck had it, we stayed in both.  They were exactly the same.  Very small rooms by Western standards, but perfect for falling face-down on the bed after your flight.  Good AC was very welcome, large wall-mounted TV, private bath, very sound proof and quiet.  Good bed, but I later realized the pillows were very skimpy.  Not that I cared the first day at all.

We could see Godzilla from the window in our room.  We could look down on him and see all the lights

Kabukicho at night.

Kabukicho at night.

of bustling Shinjuku.  We were in Kabukicho, which my son kept informing me was the largest red-light district in Asia.  Well, I don’t know about that, but there were a lot of bars and rather, er, specific, clubs. But walking around in early evening or during the day, especially with two grown men beside me, was not uncomfortable at all.  I was in bed every night by 7:30, so I don’t know what went on after that.

At the Robot Restaurant.

At the Robot Restaurant.

 

My brother wanted to go to the Robot Restaurant a few blocks away, but we found out there were neither robots nor a restaurant at this establishment.  Instead there is a big floor show with remote-controlled floats. Very loud, high energy, raucous.  Oh, yeah. It’s also costs $80.00 each to get in, with not even a free beer thrown in.  Makes Vegas look good.  Anyway, we went for this one big splurge. One of the highlights was watching Godzilla battle a space monster.  My videography sucks, but stay with it just to see what happens to the girl.

Where is Mary Going? Hint: It’s Not Texas!

Where is Mary going now? Hmmm....

Where is Mary going now? Hmmm….

I’m off on a magnificent trip for the next two weeks that I’ve been dreaming of for 40 years.  Using the photo above as a clue, guess where I’m going.  Leave your guess in the comments section below.  Correct responses will win a free autographed copy of my novel Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons, which has nothing whatsoever to do with this trip.

Now your job is to figure out what I’ve been thinking of for all these years…..

Where’s Mary in October? Enter and Win!

Where could I see leaves like this in Texas?

Where could I see leaves like this in Texas?

It’s time to play “Where’s Mary?” again!  The first person to identify where the photo above was taken wins an autographed copy of my novel, Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons.   Just enter your guess in the comments below.  Comments have a time/date stamp that I use to break the tie whenever more than one person submits the right answer.  Come on and join the fun!  Where did I take this picture?

This contest will continue to run for several months as a prelude to the publication on my new travel guide to Southwest Texas called From the Frio to Del Rio: Western Hill Country and the Lower Pecos Canyonlands.  The guide will come out in April, 2017, from Texas A&M Press. Just sent back the final revisions and index today!  Hooray!

 

Travel Guide Proofs are Here and Lookin’ Great!

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center botanical garden.

Claret cup cactus in Judge Roy Bean Visitor Center botanical garden, Langtry, Texas.

 

From the Frio to Del Rio: Travel Guide to the Western Hill Country and Lower Pecos Canyonlands has landed in my hands this week in the form of page proofs from the publisher! Hooray!  Texas A&M Press has done a beautiful job on layout and design of the book.  My brother, Thomas C. Self, contributed some great photos of the Western Hill Country and friend Jack Johnson has some wonderful photos of the Lower Pecos Canyonlands in the book.  Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Shumla Research and Education Center also graciously shared photos with me.  The pictures really make the book pop and add a lot to the story.

The book tells lots of forgotten history about places in the region, and tries to include all the players.  For instance, did you know that a woman named Jerusha Sanchez was one of the first settlers in the Nueces canyon?  She was a widow and served as a midwife to the few women in the area in the 1870s. Did you know that a Texas Ranger named Bigfoot Wallace fought Comanches in Val Verde County around that same time?  And wait ’til you find out what Charles Lindbergh did!

Besides what to see, where to stay and where to eat, I also tell you where to buy gas and groceries, where the hospitals are, and other information travelers need to know.  But the part I like the most is the section on Scenic Routes.  There’s the New Money and Old Art Trail, the Bat Trail, the Buffalo Soldiers and Black Seminole Indian Trail, and the Aviation History Trail to name a few.

I’m doing my final proof reading and making a few corrections before I send it back to the publishers by early October.  Then a couple of months for the magic of the printed word (and picture) to happen.  The actual book itself should be in a bookstore near you sometime in April, 2017.

We have a Winner! Thanks to Everyone Who Played “Where’s Mary?”

What's missing from this old picture of Barton Springs that is there today?

What’s missing from this old picture of Barton Springs that is there today? Guess and win a free, autographed book.

 

Rachel is our winner for August!  She correctly identified  ‘sky scrappers’ as  missing from this photo of Barton Springs taken several years ago.  Yes, progress marches on, but at least we still have our sacred swimming hole. Stay tuned for another picture in “Where’s Mary?” and play again in September.

###

No one responded correctly for the last photo posted in “Where’s Mary?”, but here’s another one to try.  This photo was taken a few years ago in Austin. The question is “What’s Missing?” The first person to give the correct answer in the comments section below wins a free, autographed copy of Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyons.  

You’ll find the location of the mural below in my new travel guide From the Frio to Del Rio: Travel Guide to Southwest Texas, which comes out in April, 2017, from Texas A&M Press.  I got samples of the pages last week, and they are beautiful, thanks to the designer at A&M, and my great photographers.   I hope to get the proofs in mid-September.

Find out where this is in my new book!

Find out where this is in my new travel guide!

It’s August. Where’s Mary?

Where's Mary? Identify the location of this photo and win!

Where’s Mary? Identify the location of this photo and win!

Recognize this mural?  If so, reply in the comments section below and tell us where this is.  The first person with the correct answer (city and state) wins an autographed copy of my novel Peyote Fire: Shaman of the Canyon. Contest will run for the next several months as design continues for my new travel guideFrom the Frio to Del Rio: Travel Guide to the Western Hill Country and Lower Pecos Canyonlands, which will be published by Texas A&M Press hopefully in April 2017.  So take a good look at the picture above and give me your comments. We’ve had three winners in previous months, and this could be your turn to win!

The Nueces River: Rio Escondido– New from Margie Crisp

Camp Wood Crossing on the Nueces River

Camp Wood Crossing on the Nueces River–painting by William Montgomery

 

I’m happy to have Margie Crisp as my guest today. Margie has a new book coming out in Spring 2017 called The Nueces

Margie Crisp with a 7 foot Texas Indigo snake

Margie Crisp with a 7 foot Texas Indigo snake.

River: Rio Escondido.  She is also the author and illustrator of the award-winning book River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado, published by Texas A&M Press. River of Contrasts won the Texas State Historical Association Award for the best illustrated book on Texas History and Culture in 2012, and the Best Book of Non-Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters, also in 2012. You can learn more about her at www.margiecrisp.com, or www.coloradorivertx.com.

Welcome, Margie. I know you traveled over 800 miles along the Colorado River to write River of Contrasts. How did you do that? Mary, first of all thanks for this interview. I’m a big fan of yours so this is a thrill. To be

honest, when I started my research for River of Contrasts: The Texas Colorado, I didn’t have a clue what I was getting

River of Contrasts--Available now at book stores and Amazon

River of Contrasts–Available now at book stores and Amazon

myself into. I didn’t have any training as a writer (though I had taken a few courses from the Texas Writers’ League) and ended up just following the issues and subjects that interested me. Luckily the river’s geography determined the structure of the book. I chose to start at the headwaters so I pointed my car northwest and started driving. In the upper basin the river is nothing but a trickle so I asked ranchers for permission to walk along the river. When I started exploring the river’s middle reaches I began hauling my kayak along but only the reservoirs held enough water for boating. The best paddling was without a doubt in San Saba County and down to the head of Lake Buchanan where the river runs through limestone canyons and pecan bottoms. From the Highland Lakes to the coast I paddled numerous day trips and a few overnight trips. I wish I could say I’d run the river in one trip from the headwaters to the Gulf but by taking many shorter trips I got to experience the river through flood, drought, and different seasons.

Did you do something similar for your new book on the Nueces River? I started the project the same way—looking on maps and then taking off in my car with camera, coffee and sleeping gear. I’d spent time along the Nueces but I’d never followed the river. Because my husband, artist William (Bill) Montgomery agreed to create the art for the book, we took trips to the river together as well as separately. We started the project in the midst of a record drought and it wasn’t until the fall of 2015 that there was sufficient water for paddling the upper sections. So most of our paddling and boating trips were in the lower part of the river.

What made you want to take on such a project? I am passionate about Texas rivers. Historically people relied upon

My photo of Camp Wood Crossing

Photo of Camp Wood Crossing by Mary S. Black

our rivers for food, water and transportation. A look at settlement patterns shows camps, farms and towns clustered around waterways and moving from the coast inland along the rivers. Nowadays, the people of Texas seem to have forgotten just how essential rivers are to our communities. There has been a shift towards viewing rivers as the private domains of the wealthy instead of as the great common resources that they are. I try to entertain and engage readers long enough to slip in a little education but ultimately I hope to help people feel a connection and appreciation for our amazing Texas rivers.

Traveling down these rivers requires significant time and energy. What advice would you give someone about a long river trip? Honestly there are so many variables with weather and river conditions that it is impossible to plan for every contingency, but sunscreen, a good hat, and a set of dry clothes are my essentials. Plus, lots of water and snacks!

Tell us about your other art. What media do you work in? What subjects intrigue you? I’ve worked in a variety of media over the years. Currently I’ve been working on a number of large watercolor and pencil drawings for a January 2017 show at the University of Mary Hardin Baylor in Belton. My art is based upon my personal experiences in the natural world so local flora and fauna are my mainstays.

Fish Camp by

Fish Camp by William Montgomery

You’ve exhibited many, many places and have work in the Austin Museum of Art. Do you have any exhibits coming up next spring so people can get a taste of the new book? When I considered the Nueces River project, I realized that I wanted to research and write but creating the art was daunting (the Colorado River book took over five years). Luckily my husband was interested in the project and he created a body of artwork (oils, watercolors, pen & ink) for the book. It was great to work together but we describe our journey as being parallel tracks: my writing and his art are our individual responses to joint experiences. I don’t describe his art and he doesn’t illustrate my words. Obviously I’m biased but I think the art is magnificent! We both contributed photographs for the book.

What’s next on your agenda? I’m in an art period. One of my quirks is that I have to either make art or write. After I finish up the art work for the next show, I’ll go back to writing again. I’ve got a couple of ideas for novels and there are lots of wonderful rivers to explore!

Many thanks for joining us today. I’m looking forward to tracing the Nueces with your new book.