Traveling to Japan

Andrew and I have been out of Cambodia for a week now, and it feels thousands of miles away - which it is. We were able to travel to Japan for holiday for two weeks. I am looking out the window of a cosy ski lodge at snow-covered pine trees, for once, in a long time, enjoying the feeling of warmth.

It's been a whirlwind of a week, but I'll try to update you on our trip so far. We left Poipet about a week ago. Our day started early – 5:30 am, waking up before the sun so we could get to the border before it was overwhelmed with crowds of tourists. And it was worth it – when we arrived at the border, close to two hundred Khmers were squatting in line, stretched far out past the covered walkway. But the guards pushed us to the line on the side for foreigners – only three people ahead of us. It wasn’t a moment too soon, as two or three buses dropped off tourists, who lined up behind us, again stretching out much farther than I’d ever seen before. And I can’t tell you how relieved we were to be at the front.

After crossing, we found a bus headed to Bangkok that could drop us off near the airport. Normally we take vans that careen at suicidal speeds, swerving through the traffic, playing with death. This double decker van was a completely different experience. Nearly empty, we sat at the top in the front row with a clear view of the small Thai towns and fields we passed through.

Lunch @ Victory Monument - not sure which gangsta sign I'm trying to do there....

After dropping our bags at the airport, we spent the day in Bangkok – picking up our new prescription glasses, browsing the shelves at Kinokuniya, an English-language bookshop in Paragon Mall, and buying snacks in the Gourmet Market. Andrew found a stand slicing freshly cooked Christmas ham at the store, and we made a dinner out of smoked cheese, the ham, and a French baguette. We returned to the airport and went through the rhythm of check-in, immigration, security, and the inevitable notices of our delayed flight to Tokyo via China.

Thai Ronald McDonald
Thai Ronald McDonald

Andrew checking out the Thai Ronald McDonald

Sunrise at Beijing Airport, China
Sunrise at Beijing Airport, China

Sunrise in Beijing

Beijing Airport is beautiful – soaring glass ceilings with reddish-orange beams, sunlight pouring in through the whole building. But it was

freezing

– we pulled out our heavy jackets as soon as we got off the plane. After an hour of waiting, we were on our plane to Tokyo.

Streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
Streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

Streets of Shinjuku, Tokyo

My first impression of Tokyo was a city more modern than any I’d seen. The subway system was bewildering – enough so to get us lost on our first ride, despite having clear instructions from our host and the ladies who sold us the tickets. We didn’t realize that multiple trains used the same tracks, and you had to check the rolling electronic sign on the front of the train before you boarded. After traveling about 10

minutes, Andrew realized we were headed in the wrong direction. Our confusion must have been obvious, because a middle-aged man in round glasses asked if he could help, and he pointed out where we should go on the map. He even offered to get off and help us to Daimon, our transfer station. We declined, saying now it looked easy. He raised his eyebrows, “Easy? No, not easy – very complicated!” And he was definitely right – more people had to help us to decipher the subway map and get to our stations.

The Tokyo Metro is a beast...

But we made it, and our couchsurfing host was there, patiently waiting for us. Our host was a young married father of two children who became a

Couchsurfing host

to introduce people to Japan and to learn more about other cultures and to practice English. He led us through the streets to his home and helped us pick out a lunch at the supermarket near his house. (We hadn’t eaten all day, really – the food on Air China is

terrible

.) After a short rest and a quick wash-up, he led us on a walking tour of different parts of Tokyo near his house – the Skytree, the tallest tower in the world, which was lit up in Christmas colors and crowded with hundreds of people watching the lighting. We also traveled to Asakusa, a bustling “date spot” with a temple over 500 years old and long rows of outdoor stalls selling traditional snacks, paper hangings, kimonos, kitschy souveneirs, and countless other items. Families, teenagers, tourists, young lovers – everyone was outside, enjoying the crisp night air and the lights and colors of the area.

Asakusa temple, Tokyo, Japan
Asakusa temple, Tokyo, Japan
Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan
Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan

Asakusa, Tokyo

Andrew and I were really enjoying ourselves but feeling very tired, so we made our last stop – a small sushi restaurant which Takeyuki said was the best in Tokyo. Now, I feel that after this meal, I had never truly eaten sushi before in my life. We’ve eaten the imitation sushi they sell in plastic boxes in the grocery stores, or the sushi you eat in Japanese restaurants in the Midwest, days away from the nearest ocean. But sushi must be eaten in Japan – preferably in a small, cozy restaurant with only ten seats that has been there over 15 years.

Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan
Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan
Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan
Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan

The sushi chef at work

We entered the restaurant through a sliding wooden door, Takeyuki being greeted with shouts and

“Konnichiwa!”

by the owners and other diners seated in front of an L-shaped table that faced the sushi preparation. Ice skating played on the television, providing a background of classical music and movie soundtracks. The sushi chef was a tall, robust man with a teal-colored scarf twisted and tied around his forehead. Takeyuki explained that he had ordered twelve sushis for each of us, more than the normal serving of eight, so we could try more kinds. Also on our serving tray was thick, steaming matcha green tea and miso soup, with pieces of fresh seaweed floating in the cloudy brown broth.

Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan
Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan

The sushi was served one by one. The first was a small slice of white and black-speckled meat with a small pink piece of flesh on the top, sitting astride a small roll of sushi rice. The chef found a picture of the fish in his dictionary when we asked what kind it was – a “file fish”, which didn’t help us at all. The pink flesh was the fish’s liver. The whole thing was delicious – cool, soft, creamy-textured. And it was only the beginning. We tried two kinds of mackerel and three kinds of tuna – including

otoro

, the fattiest part of the tuna, which had a smear of wasabi underneath that balanced the sweetness of the flesh. Next was eel sushi, which melted like butter in your mouth. One was piled on top with salmon eggs, which burst in your mouth with cold, slightly-bitter yet tasty liquid. One sushi was fresh shrimp –

very

fresh. The owner of the restaurant, a petite older woman with round cheeks and a ready smile, grabbed a still-squirming shrimp to show us how it was made. She leaned over towards our plates, talking, but the shrimp wriggled from her hand and jumped onto my miso bowl cover. I squealed, the other diners laughed, and the owner grabbed the shrimp, laughing too as she pulled off the head and legs and handed it to the chef to be finished off. It was delicious.

When our final course arrived of six small tuna sushi rolls, we couldn’t eat it all right away. So we sat, talking with the chef via our host’s translation, watching ice skating talking about Japanese culture, Cambodia, and loads of different topics. The sushi chef said he had worked in this restaurant for seventeen years and had trained right there in the kitchen. Black and white photos of him at a younger age, with the older sushi chef and owners, hung on the wall. The other diners said, “Happy New Year!” to us in lilting English, and the owners brought out Japanese oranges for dessert.

Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan
Eating sushi in Tokyo, Japan

With our host & chef

We finally managed to make it through the last sushis and started to say our goodbye – a full two hours after we’d arrived. We took our photos with the chef, and the owner presented us with gifts – two mugs with drawings of different kind of sushis and the name of the restaurant written in Japanese on the side, as well as a 2013 Japanese calendar. Such warmth and generosity was unexpected.

We walked home in the cold, tottering a bit from our full stomaches. I told Andrew and Takeyuki, “We may be cold outside, but our hearts are very warm.” We stopped by the supermarket and bought items to make our host French toast for breakfast. The cinnamon took a bit of hunting, but was finally found. After returning home, our host showed us how to unroll the futon mats on the floor in our room and turned on the automatic bath – held at a steaming 41-degrees Celsius (105.8 degrees F!). Covered with lit-up buttons in Japanese on a side panel, it talked to me during my bath; I have no idea what it said, but it was

rejuvenating.

If this was our first day in Japan, I can hardly imagine how wonderful the rest of the trip will be.