Japan, september 2008

Can you eat raw fish?

We are on our way to Japan. We´re flying from Amsterdam to Osaka with a seven-hour layover in Helsinki. It is 10 degrees in the Finnish capital, and that´s very unfortunate, since our warm clothes are out of reach. If we catch a cold here, we will be stuck with a runny nose in Japan for three weeks, even though we have read that it is better to drop your pants in public, than to blow your nose there. Socially at least; blowing your nose is still more effective. Anyway, adrenaline pumps through your blood when you walk through Helsinki with this prospect, merely wearing a thinlayered T-shirt. We take a walk, eat something in the harbor and get back on the bus to the airport. The question is always what you will remember from such a whirlwind visit ten years from now. My guess is the beautiful Art Deco train station, a few churches with golden domes, men with shaggy beards, and an economy that runs entirely on reindeer paraphernalia (forget Nokia!).


Our first course of action in Osaka is to pick up our Japan Rail passes. These passes will allow us to board almost any train, including the lightning-fast Shinkansen. For our trip, the price is out of proportion to that of single tickets: 400 euros for three weeks, while a single trip Tokyo-Nagasaki by Shinkansen already costs 130 euros. However, the passes can only be requested from abroad so we have to be careful with them. If we loose them, we´re screwed. We immediately board the train to Nara; we’ll save Osaka for the end. Now the real adventure has begun. We are going to spend the next 3 weeks discovering if we have romanticized eating raw fish three times a day.

The first authentic Japan moment is claimed by the train conductor, who makes a solemn bow to passengers every time he enters or exits the compartment. This makes an impression on us, especially when he walks away, as he turns around for it especially. Second place goes to the fully automatic cab doors. Fortunately Ellen whispers to me that the driver opens and closes the doors with a button on the dashboard, otherwise I would have destroyed the door in one go. After 27 hours of travel, It is time for our first ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn.

As expected, shoes must be removed at the door and a battery of flip-flops is waiting on the ground.
The walls are dark wood with rice-paper doors, and on the floor are tatami mats. A bed is missing; instead there are mattresses (futons) on the floor. In the closet there are two yukatas, Japanese bathrobes. In her yukata Ellen looks a lot like Anton Geesink, the most famous Dutch Judoka. He was the first non-Japanese judoka to win gold at the World Judo Championships. You can’t give someone a bigger compliment than that in Japan. Yet she calls me a Drag Queen in revenge. So lame.

After our first sushi and sashimi in a little bar, we make our way back to the ryokan for a bath. Normally there are separate public bath rooms for men and women, but here only one onsen is in use, as a family bath. This is convenient; this way we can practice etiquette before stepping into the onsen surrounded be experienced people. It is essential that you completely disinfect your body before getting into the bath. So first – sitting on a mini-stool – you shower, soap and rinse extensively, and only then do you get into the bath. This principle is no different from the mandatory shower in a Western swimming pool. But while in our own country we very obligatorily step into the shower, here the shower ritual is serious business. Some books claim that Japanese leave the pool en masse as soon as a foreigner steps in with a forgotten soap bubble behind his ears. According to the same books, it remains to be seen which is the main problem: the soap bubble or the foreigner hanging on to it. So far we have not been bothered by xenophobic Japanese, but that could be because the bathroom door is locked. After our dress rehearsal for the onsen, we dive onto the futon. Time to get rid of our enormous jet lag.

The next day we are ready for breakfast exactly at the appointed time. The dining room is furnished minimally. There are six low tables, and on each table is either a salt shaker or a bottle of soy sauce – depending on whether you choose to eat Western or Japanese breakfast. We are having Japanese food. As soon as we sit down on the cushions on the floor, the table is filled with trays and bowls containing miso soup, rice, sashimi (raw fish fillet), pickled vegetables, seaweed leaves, omelet, mushrooms, soy cubes, green tea, and a few slippery not unappetizing things of admittedly unclear origin. It’s a feast, especially when you normally start your workdays with a bowl of porridge. And despite thick knees from flying, sitting on the floor turns out to be not so bad. We cheat a bit by stretching our legs under the table. We’re probably not supposed to do it, but no one notices.

After breakfast we walk into town. Nara was the capital of Japan in the 8th century, before Kyoto and Tokyo. It is full of Buddhist and Shintoist temples. Shinto is a religion of Japanese origin, while Buddhism was imported through China and Korea. Most Japanese are bireligious. The nature gods of shinto are there for the most important moments during life, such as entrance exams and marriages, while Buddha looks after life in general. Temples of both religions can be distinguished on external features, but often the two are intertwined. One of the most impressive temples in Nara is the Buddhist Todai-Ji, said to be the world’s largest wooden building. Inside is an imposing Buddha statue 15 feet tall. His earlobe alone is bigger than Anton Geesink!

About a thousand deer roam around freely in Nara. People used to think these animals were of divine origin, a mistake that is understandable when you look into those adorable deer eyes. A lady hands me a stack of cookies to feed to the deer. In no time at all, I am ambushed by a herd of deer who want get my attention (and my T-shirt). Not exactly divine manners. The deer walk everywhere, including among traffic. At a visitor information center, we throw a few yen into a collection box for deer that have been hit by traffic. It won’t buy you a new deer but it might buy you a pack of cookies as comfort for the bereaved.

The information center also has an earthquake simulator. It is a chair that moves according to the pattern of a couple of real earthquakes. Ellen lets herself be shaken up, to the hilarity of a pair of Japanese toddler twins. Next, we get an explanation of the use of shock absorbers in buildings. This seems like good news twice over: firstly, safety is being considered, and secondly, apparently Japanese people do speak reasonable English. Although – when asking some questions, our informant breaks down. He doesn’t understand a word we say, and has probably memorized his whole explanation. Should we start to learn Japanese after all? One word is already starting to make sense: “hai,” Japanese for “yes.” You pronounce it like you’re hiccuping (or in a hurry). Every transaction concludes with a hai salvo. I take this hai as a good sign and conveniently forget that Japanese also sometimes say hai when they mean no.

In the evening, we eat at a restaurant that looks a bit more formal than the one the day before. At the entrance, our shoes are put in a locker and we are given restaurant slippers. We shuffle along with the waiter who shows us to a table. The moment I move my foot toward the little table, mild panic breaks out. “Nonono!!!” I had not yet identified the carpeted floor around the dining table as tatami, but clearly we were not meant to step on it with the same slippers we had put on six feet back. Our first real foot error! Fortunately, I recover quickly; I had not yet shifted my entire weight on the slipper. There is a sigh of relief. We take off the slippers, and the waiter neatly lays them out in a row, with the openings facing us, so we can get back in without turning around later. Before he walks away with a full tray, he quickly bends down to turn his colleague’s slippers a half turn. Although I associate this kind of behavior with accountants who in their spare time slash little girls into pieces with a chainsaw, I have to say that so far the Japanese are not bad at all. We had prepared ourselves for people who are rather fanatical about rules. However, what we see are mostly friendly Japanese who are very willing to help you if you don’t know how things are supposed to be done. As long as you remember the Three Main Laws of Japan then all will be well:

  • Thou shalt not blow thy nose in public.
  • Thou shalt shower before bathing.
  • Thou shalt not wear outdoor footwear indoors, and no indoor footwear outdoors, and in the toilet only toilet footwear (and absolutely not outside!), and in the garden wooden garden slippers and on the tatami mats only socks.

In addition, it is advisable to always keep the (appearance of) harmony, so never get angry and smile a lot. But that is not unique to Japan. By the way, the food tasted excellent after my foot error. Our dining table has an unexpected bonus: a cutout in the ground under the table where we can put our legs. That made sitting on the floor a lot more comfortable. Another thing you see here are chairs with backrests but no legs. You don’t actually miss them at all, those chair legs.


The next day we take the train from Nara to Takayama. It´s our first ride in a Shinkansen. Like Japanese salarymen, we eat on the train from a ´bento´, a lunch box. For about seven euros, you buy one of these cardboard boxes filled with delicacies like sushi, sashimi, tempura, or whatever you like. It always looks like a gift, and it tastes like a gift, too – and I’m not referring to a bottle of aftershave or a pair of tennis socks. Another favorite pastime on Japanese trains is sleeping. Japanese have agreed with each other to turn off the sound of their cell phones, and not to bother each other with endless chatter, so it is usually very quiet on the train. In addition, your seat is extremely comfortable. You can also turn your seat – very handy if you get uncomfortable when riding backwards or if you are sitting across from an (un)attractive person. I try to get rid of my jet lag during these first days of travel as we race through Japan at a speed of more than two hundred kilometers per hour.

At the moments when I’m not sleeping, the landscape seems to consist of only four elements, and I strongly suspect that this is also the case when I do sleep. Those four elements are (1) mountains covered with forests, (2) rice paddies, (3) built-up areas, and (4) driving ranges for golf. Wikipedia supports my theory. I read that over 70% of Japan is covered by mountain and forest, and unsuitable for development. Japan is roughly ten times the size of the Netherlands. That leaves three times the size of the Netherlands to keep 127 million Japanese, who only want homegrown rice. That leaves no room at all for golf courses, so you’ll have to build a practice green in every village.

One single contemplation like this and we are already in Takayama, that’s how fast the train is moving. Takayama is located in the Japanese Alps. Every spring this ancient town hosts a shinto festival, during which large floats are being carried through the town. Throughout the year the floats are stored in special garages, but a small selection can be viewed in a museum. It´s lovely. We also visit an open-air museum just outside of town, where a number of recreated historic country houses from the region. A fire is smoldering in each of these houses; it used to be and can still be quite cold here in winter. Today, by the way, it is pleasant here, aside from some drizzle; it is a lot less hot and humid here than in the lower areas.

Hida, the region around Takayama, is known for good beef, so we look for a restaurant that specializes in steak. A small burner is placed on the table with a tray on top of it, together with a “hoba leaf” containing miso – a substance made from fermented soybeans from which miso soup is also made. Under the watchful eye of the waiters, I fry the steak strips in the miso. Ellen cooks her cow in a pan of noodle soup, then dips it in raw egg and eats it. Both ways taste excellent!

The next morning we stroll through the quiet town in search of breakfast, a temple, and a battery charger. The last one seems unfindable, somewhat surprisingly in the land of electronic gadgets. A helpful store lady even makes a round of calls for us as far as the manufacturer, but in the end she has to sell no. Nevertheless, thank you, hai, hai!

In the afternoon we are lured inside a puppet theater slash museum. The performance has already begun; we are spectators number three and four. After the show, the beginning is repeated especially for us. I´d just happened to read on the internet that the World Robotics Championship is being held in Japan; in this little museum it becomes apparent in what a long tradition Japanese robotophilia is rooted. What we see is a kind of combination between art, technology, and magic. In the evening we drink beer and sake with appetizers in a lovely little bar. This is where the Japanese score points; finding a cozy pub in a foreign country is not always easy. And there are definitely bonus points for the music. Almost every establishment in Japan plays jazz.

Tsumago and Magome

The next day we take the train from Takayama to Tsumago. Tsumago is also located in the mountains, and it is along the Nagasendo road between Kyoto and Tokyo. This historic road was used during the Tokugawa shogunate (1603-1868) by regional military rulers who had to report every two years to the shogun in Edo, formerly Tokyo. We will be spending a day following in the footsteps of this daimyo. We’ll stay overnight at one of the ryokans in Tsumago and intend to walk a stage of the Nagasendo the next day, to the next post town, Magome.

Both in front of and behind the ryokan in Tsumago there is a pond with koy carp. One of the fish is constantly lying on its side in a corner of the pond, not usually a sign of a zest for life. The daughter of the ryokan tells us that the fish doctor is already on his way. She speaks English very well, having studied in America for some time. I tell her that I just saw a snake crawling in front of the entrance to the hotel. She reacts very surprised, only to tell us a few seconds later that it is probably related to the two-meter-long snake she found in the garden earlier this week. Ellen tries to put a positive spin on this news, suggesting that such a snake keeps the area free of insects. Carp girl: “Oh yes, and from rats!” Thank goodness, because I don’t think the rice-paper wall of our hotel room is very rat-proof. You would almost forget that in the land of fish doctors and bonzai trees, there is wildlife too. We were even advised earlier today to bring a bell when hiking to Magome to scare off bears! According to our carp girl though, no bears have been seen along the trail in a long time. So the bell is not so much needed for our safety as it is to prevent bears from coming back. I can’t put my finger on what this reassurance is based on – at least not logic.

In the evening, we are treated to an excellent dinner at the ryokan. We eat trout, fried bee larvae in honey, a crispy crab that can be eaten as a whole, pieces of giant cucumber, and strips of a cow that has been subjected to beer and massages while alive. Typically from here and also very tasty are cold buckwheat noodles, dipped in a sauce of soy and spring onion, which you may – no: must – slurp down with a lot of noise. What is striking is the enormous variety of Japanese food. Especially in the ryokans, every night we eat something we have never eaten before, or have never even considered to be food. Besides the taste, the mouth feel plays a big role. I bet the Japanese have at least twenty words for what we call slippery or slimy. I’m not going to claim that everything is equally delicious; that would be boring, but almost nothing is yucky and almost everything is interesting. It is also a matter of trust. We are beginning to believe, that when a Japanese person puts something on the table, it is always worth tasting.

The next morning we are overcome with serious doubts as to whether we should still do the hike to Magome. Bears aside, we are told by several people that it is a tough hike with quite a few climbs. And it is already getting pretty hot. We decide to go anyway. Soon all the commotion turns out to be totally unnecessary. It is a beautiful forest walk, interrupted every few hundred meters by an asphalt road. There is no sign of bears, and certainly no sign of hardship. I embarrassingly hide the bell from other hikers, although they have probably heard it from a mile away. Magome is a village full of tourists. We pick up our luggage, which we had sent down from Tsumago , and travel on to Tokyo.


The subway in Tokyo proves to be a challenge. We are so used to waving our Japan Railpass everywhere that we have no idea how to buy a subway ticket. There are vending machines but the information in English is sketchy. Fortunately, as in the rest of the country, the staff is extremely helpful. And we discover a nice arrangement: if you are in doubt about the fare of your ticket, you can always choose the cheapest one and pay extra at the exit, without any scowls.

We check in and then head to Roppongi Hills for a bite to eat. The restaurants in this part of town are quite trendy, on the expensive side, and above all very crowded. Roppongi hills is three-dimensional: you go up by stairs, then walk across plazas and past stores as if you were on the first floor. The difference is that there are no cars here. It’s genius, actually. We visit the Sky Aquarium, in a modern tower overlooking the city. The artsy environment in which the fish swim around makes it more like a museum of modern art than an aquarium.

We visit the Pentax Forum on the advice of our guidebook. It turns out to be little more than a photography store, with a nice exhibit about the Fuji volcano. Ellen strikes up a conversation with the exhibitor’s wife, and tells her that we are going to Fuji the next day. The lady lives nearby with the photographer, and she invites us to drop by. The eternal question is how serious such an invitation is from someone you have known for ninety seconds. We read somewhere that a Japanese person in a restaurant will offer to pay twice out of politeness, but the third time is serious. I don’t know if it applies to such an invitation, and I forgot to count anyway, so we’ll just be on the safe side and assume she won’t sit with a pot of green tea waiting for us. For a change, we eat at Makudonarudo, the world’s most famous hamburger restaurant. The menu lists under the burgers and milkshakes: smile, 0 yen. That’s really cheap, and in Japan you don’t even have to ask for it.

The next morning we visit the fish market in Tsukiji. Because we walk through the gate as early as six o’clock, we get to witness the tuna auction. An army of inspectors is bending over huge frozen tuna lying on the ground, after which the fish are auctioned off. It is beautiful to witness, but it is also the first time we feel like a tourist in Japan, in the sense of person getting in the way of real life. One noteworthy detail: at the world’s largest fish market, it doesn’t smell of fish.

Hakone and Mount Fuji

In the afternoon, we take the train to Hakone. The train driver is doing his work behind a glass wall, so we witness a rather theatrical routine. Every few minutes or so he points to a sign along the track, then to a schedule on his dashboard, then to his watch, only to find each time that he is running exactly on time. At least that is how we and other travelers explain this ritual. Perhaps we are mistaken, and this man has sensors in his fingers that allow him to control the train by pointing. That´s also a possibility in Japan.

Hakone is located on Lake Ashino, relatively close to Mount Fuji (Fuji-San). Mount Fuji is not an active volcano, the last eruption of Mount Fuji was several centuries ago. From Hakone, Fuji-San is hidden from view by other mountains. Views of the volcano are only available from the lake, or from the mountains in the way. Even then, you have to be lucky. According to our hostess, the volcano has been shrouded in clouds for weeks. Even now it’s drizzling, and the forecast is not good. Still, we get up early the next morning – before breakfast! – to take the first mountain train up. Halfway up we get stranded; the cable car that is supposed to take us to the summit doesn’t start operating until an hour later. Out of necessity we take our breakfast from a Haagen-Dazs ice cream machine. The green tea ice cream is delicious. A sign at the start of the cable car confirms that there is little chance of seeing Fuji-San today. But expectation management is not on our minds today. We paid, so we go up. From the gondola we stare into the mist, simply because there is nothing else to stare into. Halfway through the ride, Ellen accidentally looks over her shoulder and sees Fuji-San in all its glory, completely free of clouds. Like I said, you have to get lucky (and look in the right direction).

At the top of the mountain-with-a-view-of-Fuji there are a couple of restaurants and a bench for taking group photos-with-Fuji-in-the-background. In several places, sulfur fumes emerge from the ground. Signs advise us to keep our visit short for health reasons. At the same time, we can buy eggs cooked in the hot springs here; eating them will actually extend our life by seven years. After Ellen first photographs Fuji-San and then a group of salarymen, we descend the mountain again with another cable car. We complete the round trip to Hakone with a boat ride in a very ugly pirate ship. A regular ship also sails but I insist on taking the pirate ship. My idea behind it is that this way, your view will not be spoiled by an ugly pirate ship.


The Shinkansen takes us to Kyoto. For a thousand years, Kyoto has been the capital of the imperial empire. As one of the few Japanese cities, it escaped most of the bombing in WWII, so it is still full of temples and historical sites. Yet you don’t feel like you’re walking around an open-air museum here. The train station is a futuristic glass structure, and the rest of the city looks ultramodern as well. Our hotel is in a back alley. I have kept track of the amount of floor space of all our hotel rooms, measured in tatamimats. A tatami mat is an estimated 90 cm wide, and it is exactly twice as long as it is wide. Kyoto sets the depth record of three mats. With the futons unfolded, there is very little room left not to lie in bed, but why not lie in bed when you are in your room?

First, we visit a few places outside the city. Fushiri-Inari Taisha is a Shinto temple complex dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. The latter appeals to me, but Ellen picked this place mainly for its photogenic red Torii, gateways set up along a trail that stretches on for miles. I don’t blame her. The next temple is called Tenryi-Ji, and is located next to a bamboo forest known from the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” I myself haven’t seen the movie yet, so for me it will be the movie known from the bamboo forest rather than the other way around. Temple Three, Ryoan-Ji, is famous for its zen garden. It is not unusual for people to admire such a garden for hours on end. It consists of fifteen rocks in a rectangle with gravel and a wall around it. The rocks are supposedly arranged in such a way that they can’t all be seen from anywhere, but we have managed to debunk this urban myth with numerous counter-examples. So something else must have been intended. We can no longer ask the monk that designed it; he is anonymous and, moreover, dead for centuries, and he has left no explanation.

The last one for today: Kinkaku-Ji, the Golden Temple. It was originally built in 1397 as a shogun’s villa; after his death, it became a zen temple. There’s no getting around the fact that it’s quite picturesque. The brochure we got at the box office describes the history of the temple, but strangely it does not mention that the structure was completely burned down by a monk in 1950, and then reconstructed. Could such a thing be a taboo subject? Or do people simply not think it is worth telling me that I am looking at a reconstruction rather than an ancient building? The latter could just be the case; there are also temples in this country that are ritually reconstructed every few years.

Tired and a little bit drained, we return to the hotel. We have seen four temples today, plus a few impenetrable gardens. I struggle with the thought that in a city like this, you see only a tiny fraction of all the sights. And I feel that at times I don’t understand a damn thing about it – insofar as there is anything to understand, because I am of the school that thinks that a collection of sand, gravel and plants can’t be understood very well. But should you just stay on your futon all day then? That may sound very zen, but it is not what we flew to Japan for. Reading back the above paragraph, I think that the medieval monk with his fifteen rocks has given me a slight culture shock. Congratulations, zen man. You did it!

The next day we stroll through Higoshiyama, a district in Kyoto. The temples we visited yesterday all made a more or less serene impression, but temple number five on our list, Kiyomizu-dera, looks a bit like a street fair. In all sorts of ways you can try your luck or make your wishes known to higher powers. Of course, this is common in a temple or place of worship, but it is all very concrete and opportunistic here. So you can lobby for a successful career, for a good marriage, for an easy delivery, or “for against disaster.” You can drink holy water from three waterfalls, or you can test your luck in love by walking blindly from one stone to another. Meanwhile, a monk is sitting at a table, saying prayets to a large pile of wishing cards that are for sale. For a religious center, it is a rather frivolous affair. I read somewhere that it is very Japanese to have no distinction between high and low culture, and perhaps this is an example of it.

At lunchtime, Ellen commits a serious foot error – she leans on the umbrella stand with her foot while putting on her shoes. This earns her a severe reprimand. This is also a phase in the assimilation process. The first week you work very hard on your footwork but in week two some nonchalance starts to creep in here and there. Such an incident puts you on edge again. We see our first geishas, walking in Higoshiyama, or at least girls dressed as geishas. Everyone wants to take pictures of them, and they want everyone to take pictures of them. In other words, a classic win-win situation. We also see a couple sitting at a table petting two cats. People who cannot afford pets in their own apartments are allowed to pet the cats for a fee! In the evening, we drink sake and watch baseball at a local pub. These are nice places; you quickly connect with the locals, as far as possible with the language barrier.


We travel on to Koya-San, a Buddhist center in the Japanese Alps. A mountain train whisks us up the mountain. The bus driver who takes us the last few miles to our destination, is a great example of Japanese (customer) friendliness. We had accidentally gotten off the bus a few stops too late and wondered how to get back. The driver beckons us and says that we can return with him right away. As we sit down we start counting how many yen we would have to pay extra. But he returns some of the money to us, because we had actually planned a shorter ride. That´s so amazing, that would never happen in our country. “Domo arrigato gozaimaaaaas,” you say: thank you very much!

We spend the night in Koya-San in a Buddhist monastery. It looks a lot like a ‘normal’ ryokan, except that the food there is strictly vegetarian. Our room measures 14 tatami mats, an absolute record. In Koya-San is a huge cemetery where Buddhists from all over the country are buried awaiting the return of Kukai, the monk who founded this settlement in the ninth century. The cemetery is beautifully set among coniferous trees. A bizarre mix of old and new graves can be found. Near the entrance is a huge rocket on an astronaut’s grave, and a little further on is a tombstone with the logo of a well-known automobile manufacturer. The cemetery is enormous. Unfortunately, we can´t find the monument erected by an ant-killer manufacturer in memory of all the ants they helped exterminate. To us, such a thing sounds like a misplaced joke, but from a Buddhist perspective it is not so crazy; it cannot be ruled out that one of those ants will be your boss in the next life.

At ten to six the next morning, the bell rings in the temple for the morning ceremony, to which we are welcome as guests. I’d imagined we would join in behind a room full of monks, but in reality we outnumber them by about six other Western guests. The service is recited by three monks and a pious elderly lady, that sings so out of tune it’s almost unbearable. I also realize that it’s not a karaoke competition, but still: if you only have to sing one pitch for thirty minutes, you’re supposed to get it right by the end. After half an hour, the ceremony is over and we join in for breakfast.


Leaving Koya-San by mountain train, we race south on the Shinkansen. We cross from Honshu, Japan’s largest island, to Kyushu, the southernmost of the four main islands. Our first visit on Kyushu is Nagasaki. This city, of course, is primarily known to us for the atomic bomb. Less well known is that Nagasaki played an important historical role in relations with our country. For more than two centuries, Dutch merchants were the only people – other than the Chinese – with whom the Japanese were in contact. The shogun had banned christianity after the success of the first Western missionaries, convinced that it undermined his power. Portuguese were expelled from the country. For the Protestant Dutch, who were thought to be more interested in trade than in winning souls, the door remained slightly ajar; they were allowed to continue trading with Japan from the artificial islet of Desjima in the port of Nagasaki. Desjima – now encapsulated by land – is home to a small open-air museum. While Ellen takes pictures of some more Chinese temples, I visit our former trading enclave. Next, I walk around the “Hollander slopes,” honoring the street name. After U.S. Admiral Perry forced the end of the Dutch monopoly in the mid-19th century, more and more foreigners and embassies appeared here. You can still see some European-style cottages here. With the whole history of Desjima in mind, the Holland-themed amusement park “Huis ten Bosch” that is located just outside Nagasaki, may come a little less as a surprise.

What did come as a surprise – and a very nasty one – was Fat Man, the atomic bomb. The Americans had selected Nagasaki as a potential target because of its shipping industry. The city had the misfortune that the first choice – Kokura – was cancelled on Aug. 9, 1945 due to cloudy weather. The bomb eventually exploded a few hundred meters above a suburb of Nagasaki. A monument has been erected at the site of the hypocenter, along with a museum and memorial hall. Just as every Japanese in Amsterdam visits the Anne Frank house, we cannot ignore this place.

Just as we pass the ticket office of the atomic bomb museum, a lady with a flag walks in, followed by a tsunami of about three hundred tourists. Why so many at once? Why not just go on a trip on your own? It may seem inappropriate or irrelevant to get worked up over something like that in a place dedicated to one of history’s worst tragedies, but such a tourist invasion is not really beneficial to the experience of an atomic bomb museum. It’s not really an amusement park after all. Stalling for time proves to be an effective strategy: after half an hour, the group has finished their tour and it’s our turn again.

The first part of the museum is mainly devoted to the physical effects of the atomic bomb. Radioactivity is only one of the effects; a large part of the energy is released in the enormous shock wave of pressure and heat radiation. Impressive are the pictures of walls showing the “heat shadow” of people overwhelmed by temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius. In addition to the physical aspects, there is considerable attention to the decisions that led to the development and use of the bomb, and to the global peace movement and (attempts at) nuclear disarmament in the decades that followed. There are also a few panels on Japanese aggression in the years before the atomic bomb, but unfortunately these are barely translated into English – I would have liked to read the Japanese view on this. Stories about prime ministers commemorating war criminals and about censored textbooks make me fear the worst, but it must be said that this museum paints a fair picture, as far as we can judge.


Our next destination on Kyushu is Ibusuki. During the last leg of the train ride, something pretty unique happens: a delay followed by a standstill. Information is minimal and only in Japanese. The only thing we understand is that it is because of the rain. Apparently, even Japanese trains can break down over something as seemingly trivial as drizzle. The Japanese stay quiet, but for a change, they all bring their cell phones out of silent mode. After an hour of waiting, an announcement is made that a bus is on its way. Everyone neatly stays in line until the bus arrives and the conductor gives the signal for us to board. Once we’re all boarded, a man walks in with an air of authority and a notepad in his hand to take stock of each passenger’s final destination. Only after that is done do we leave, arriving in Ibusuki two hours later than planned.

In Ibusuki we stay in a luxurious modern Ryokan, a Japanese version of a spa. It costs a few pennies, but then you have a great deal: women who drop to their knees when you enter, four people who take care of your luggage and your shoes and bring slippers and tea. And a room with a sea view. By the way, the seashore is very ugly, but from the rotemburo (open-air bath) on the roof of the hotel you don’t notice any of that. Especially since we don’t wear glasses in the bath. Ellen, by the way, tumbles backwards from her stool during the washing ritual. No one saw it and she isn’t injured, but I don’t rule out the possibility that a few bonsai trees got smashed.

The toilet in our hotel room has a control panel. We had been introduced to seat heating before, but that concept is not my thing. After all, a warm seat is mainly a signal that you’ve sat down on the toilet too soon after another person. Now, we have a fully automatic toilet seat at our disposal. This is a fantastic opportunity to try out all the buttons in a safe environment. There’s a button for “cleansing of posterior,” and a volume button that controls the strength of the water jet. My conclusion: I’ll stick with toilet paper for now. There is also a button for the female version of the water jet. Of course, I can’t judge its effectiveness, in terms of “cleansing or anterior” or otherwise, but it makes you wonder why toilets with camouflaging electronic gurgles are so popular with Japanese women.

Ibusuki’s biggest attraction is next to the ryokan: hot sand. On the beach, you can let yourself be buried in this sand, heated by geothermal springs. You lie down in a gravelike hole with just your yukata on, then a couple of ladies shovel a layer of warm sand over you. It takes some effort for me to enjoy this, and to suppress the thought of being buried alive. Perhaps I have watched a little too many horror movies? Despite the mixed feelings, my blood pressure and heart rate afterwards are exactly the same as beforehand. Of course, that was not the intention. The brochure shows pictures of a test tube of blood before and after the sand bath; a pale carrot juice beforehand, concentrated tomato juice afterwards. Onsen therapy is what it’s called. Sounds like nonsense therapy! Nonetheless, the next morning we allow ourselves to get buried again, because why does everything always have to make sense.

After the sand bath we have a conventional bath. I throw my yukata into a basket and walk into the bathhouse. Like the Japanese, I use a tiny towel to cover my private parts. I am greeted jovially, which feels rather strange in a country, city, and bathhouse where you feel anonymous. It turns out it’s my neighbor from the hole on the beach. As we sit on a stool soaping our respective bodies, he questions me. He wants to know what we love most about Japan, and what we love to eat. I tell him we love sashimi. “Ah, can you eat raw fish?” I explain to him that we are used to eating raw herring, and that Japanese food is not unknown in the Netherlands either. I later realize that I had already come across his question somewhere as a possible – and rather innocuous – example of “nihonjinron,” the pseudoscientific belief in a unique Japanese race. One of the regular ingredients of this theory is that Japanese have longer intestines than other people, making them more or less tolerant of certain foods. Apparently, being able to tolerate raw fish is also sometimes seen as such a uniqueness. But maybe it was just a translation error and he just wanted to know if I like it. And then there is only one answer: hai, hai!


From Ibusuki we head to Kagoshima. Next to Kagoshima is an island with a volcano, Sakurajima, which spits out ash on a regular basis. It rains heavily, leaving the volcano disappointingly in the clouds, and we have to skip this trip. As an alternative, we go to the (dolphin)a(qua)rium. We had actually planned to visit the famous aquarium in Osaka, not in the least because of the whale shark that swims there. So the aquarium in Kagoshima is also second choice in that regard. However, immediately upon our entry it surpasses that status. In front of us is the whale shark we were looking for! The shark swims around in a huge tank. In fact, there are two whale sharks in there. An adult one can be as big as a bus; these ones are about five feet according to the information panel and about three feet according to my estimate. (Does the glass distort that much? And shouldn’t they, in fact, look bigger? Or am I incapable of estimating a size? And then, as a man, shouldn’t I overestimate them?) It is a fantastic sight with the giant stingrays swimming around in the same basin. The rest of the aquarium is also fascinating; what about crabs with wingspans of several meters, roaming thousands of meters deep on the bottom of the Sea of Japan.

During dinner, served in a secluded part of the restaurant, we are suddenly overcome by a yearning for entertainment. This evening is made for contact with the locals. We ask the waiters if they can recommend a karaoke joint. One tells us that he is a not undeserving karaoke player, specializing in rock music, especially Bon Jovi. He says this with pride, without shame or irony. He walks all the way with us to point out a karaoke center. “We’ll manage from here” we say at the front door, a bit naive in retrospect, because we have to pull out all the stops to explain that we would like to sing with subtitles. Eventually we are led by a girl to the second floor. We see only closed doors, but the place is buzzing. If you are quickly satisfied you call such a thing contact with the locals. We are allocated our own little room – a cubicle with a couch and a karaoke set. On the wall is a poster with house rules. I know this because it says at the top in English that they are house rules. Next to the poster is a telephone for ordering drinks. Sake doesn’t seem like a luxury under these circumstances. I grab the phone and politely repeat the words “hotto” and “sake” thirteen times. Normally I mime hot sake but over the phone that doesn’t work so well yet. After a minute of confused speech, a boy arrives at the door to take the order. “You want…Japanese liquor?” “Ah, yes, hot sake! Sake! Hotto!!! Chjjj-ahhhh!!!” (I touch an imaginary cup, and withdraw my fingers, looking startled) “Yes, Japanese liquor!” I fear I have now ordered shochu – a local liquor made from potatoes and grain. Those fears turn out to be right; we get shochu, and it tastes awful. The nostalgic folder of song titles from the olden days of karaoke appears to have been replaced by a touchscreen remote control. Fascinated, we look at the Japanese characters on the screen. Our shochu friend looks back as if realizing for the first time in his life that most Westerners cannot read characters. For a moment I hold out hope for an escape, but there is none. A few minutes later, lyrics by Frank Sinatra and The Carpenters fly across the screen in English. Only after three long hours I manage to persuade my wife to put a stop to our singing career. I have a headache – from drinking, from singing, from listening, and from the bill. Especially that last one stings. It makes sense that I have to pay to sing – after all, I pay environmental taxes too – but for listening to my own singing I should be generously compensated. As an audience, I feel cheated.

The next day, besides our hangover, we also have another problem: Cyclone No. 0813 has been raging over Okinawa, the tropical islands at the bottom of Japan, for several days. We had actually planned two days in Kagoshima, but our host advises us to travel north a day earlier. It’s not that life-threatening conditions are looming, but there is a chance that transportation will be blocked and that we will have to stay longer than two days. And that would be a pity. Since our next hotel is already booked, we schedule a day in Beppu.

Beppu and Usuki

Beppu is a seaside resort. It is not very picturesque; it all looks a bit rundown. For a change, we stay in a cheap hostel. It is the first and only time we cook for ourselves in Japan, and also the only time we speak Dutch. Since the rainy weather doesn’t allow for many other activities, we go to a mud bath. Mixed bathing is not customary in Japan, but mud is apparently the exception. You can only see heads – as long as there is a separate entrance, and that has been taken care of with all kinds of wooden partitions and fences. Afterwards, everything about us smells like sulfur.

We pick up our original plan and travel towards Aso. On the way we disembark in Usuki. This place has a collection of Buddha statues carved out of the rocks. That sounds as if those statues were already embedded in the rock, which can be defended philosophically, but it is nevertheless cleverly done.


After Hakone (with Fuji-San) and Kagoshima (with Sakurajima-San), Aso (with Aso-San) is our third volcano destination. The city of Aso is situated in an ancient crater with a circumference of up to 120 kilometers. Within the caldera, about five smaller volcanoes have formed, including one active one called Naka. Aso-San is touted as the world’s largest active volcano, which, as a volcano layman, doesn’t seem entirely fair to me because Aso is big but not active and Naka is active but not big. Anyway.

A warm welcome awaits us at the ryokan. As we look for our room, a private bath is prepared, an onsen overlooking the garden. The food at the Ryokan is once again magnificent, with the novelty of the evening being “sashimi from hoss! from hoss!” – raw horse that is.

Although the weather forecast still doesn’t bode well, the next morning we take the bus towards Naka. At Fuji it turned out to be a winning strategy to ignore the weather forecast, so we repeat that trick. We won’t let some cranky weather god take another volcano from us. There is a cable car going to the rim of the crater, but it could shut down at any moment due to increased volcanic activity. Unfortunately, today is such a moment; the Naka crater rim is closed to visitors. We climb one of the other four peaks, from where we have a fantastic view of the Aso plain. The sun breaks through regularly against all odds. To finish the afternoon, we visit the volcanic museum. Where you can peek into the crater with a remote-controlled camera.

By a fortunate coincidence, we miss the bus back to the hotel, and see in the distance that the crater has just reopened. That camera was fun, but this is the real deal! A Japanese couple offers us a ride to the cable car. They drive a slick car with leather upholstery on the seats and a built-in bottle of hairtonic on the dashboard. Hairtonic is in the changing room of every onsen, otherwise I wouldn’t even have known the word. At the cable car, we end up in the middle of a school class, all boys about sixteen years old who are out and about with their English teacher. They turn out to be Koreans. (A rule of thumb promptly settles into our neural network: a Japanese who speaks English well is a Korean.) Along the edge of the crater, the boys take pictures of each other, their teacher, and us, in various combinations, then the group hurries back down. A few more boys glance over the rim, but for most of them a volcano is what a white screen is to us: very suitable as a backdrop for family photos, but nothing else to pay attention to. Unfortunately, the hiking trail around the crater is still closed, but from where we stand we have a nice view of the steaming, green-blue crater lake. The only setback this afternoon is that by now we are badly sunburned. This morning it seemed like a completely ridiculous idea to pack sunscreen, and now we are standing in the blistering sun.

The second dinner in the ryokan in Aso brings us, among other things, a whole fish head in soy sauce. We had already wondered a few times why people sell fish heads at the market. Here our fearful suspicion becomes true. With our chopsticks we pick off some pieces of fish, but what then remains are eyes, bones, very large teeth, and brains, and none of those parts seem very appetizing. The rest of the food is truly fantastic, but this is where we draw the line. We have done our best.

Okayama, Kurashiki, Himeiji, and Osaka

The next morning we travel back from Kyushu to Honshu. From Okoyama, we go up and down to Kurashiki, a picturesque canal town made big by textile trade. From Okayama we travel on to Osaka, but with a stop in Himeiji. This place is home to Japan’s most famous castle. I read in Wikipedia that several movies were shot here, and that is understandable when you walk around. As for its defensive value, I cannot judge – I am not a martial expert – but at least it looks beautiful. The atmosphere is further heightened by an approaching thunderstorm. Because of the rain, we can’t see everything, though. For instance, there is said to be an assigned area for harikiri, with next to it a well where the Samurai warrior could wash his cut open and decapitated body. Sounds thrilling, but on the other hand: we’ve seen rooms in temples before where monk X or Samurai Y would have ritually committed suicide, and those rooms usually looked no different than our hotel room. It does strike me as disastrous for your tatami mats, such a bloodbath.

From Himeiji we travel the last bit to Osaka, and then we’ve come full circle. With our whale shark wish already satisfied in Kagoshima, in Osaka we have our hands free for big-city pleasures. Osaka is filled with neon lights and commercial clutter. Japanese love Pachinko, a kind of vertical pinball game played in extremely noisy entertainment halls. Osaka’s shopping district seems to be one big Pachinko hall. But Osaka, after all, is not known for its cultural attractions; it is primarily a commercial economic center.

To use up the last of the yen we go for a lavish dinner. Afterwards we are a bit short of yen for the after dinner entertainment, so we run back to the ATM, to get some more yen for sake. And so on. It’s the same spiral as when you try to stabilize a chair by sawing off a bit of one of its legs; eventually you end up on the floor. And that’s exactly what happens to us. The headache from our karaoke night is nothing like it. But this seems to be part of life in Japan, and as long as you don’t have to fly the next day, it doesn’t matter.

“Yesterday’s or today’s flight?” asks a lady at the check-in counter the next morning. With new technologies like time travel, we are always a little cautious, so we opt for today’s flight. A little later we hear that yesterday’s flight was canceled due to thunderstorms. That explains a few things.

Our backpacks have become a lot heavier in recent weeks. According to Ellen it is because of the tropical moisture that seeps into all your clothes, according to me it is because of the yukata, wooden slippers, breakfast plates, rice bowls, and three sake sets that we carry with us. It could be that I have commented on such a difference of opinion before. But I’m not complaining; the backpack is already on the luggage belt, and those sake cups match my Nespresso machine just fine.