Back in the U. S. of A.

Aw, thanks for worrying about me, guys!

Everything’s cool, I’m alive and well, but just a little jet-lagged. As some of you know, and some have correctly guessed, I was on my annual jaunt to Japan, this time for a bit longer than in years past. My pre-vacay trying-to-get-ahead workload distracted me from the blog, and once I got to Tokyo, I realized my laptop’s three-prong power cord wasn’t going to work with the two-pronger in my hotel.

Unfortunately, even after I tracked down an adapter, I schlepped the computer to Kyoto and found out that my hotel didn’t have internet access, and was in the kind of old-fashioned neighborhood where there’s no such thing as a local Starbucks with wi-fi (kind of refreshing, even for Japan). I didn’t have all that much time back in Tokyo before a couple of friends from Phoenix arrived at Narita, and from then on, I was busy playing tour guide (we had a blast!).

Anyway, it’s great to be back in Phoenix. I survived a typhoon and two earthquakes. That’s what I’m telling everyone, anyway, although what it amounted to was a bunch of rain that delayed my trains, and a slight tremor. I didn’t even feel the first earthquake, and the second one was so faint that the only reason I noticed it was because my friends and I were at a bar, and the ceiling lamps started swaying. Being drunk apparently makes an earthquake seem like a bigger deal than it really is, and then makes you laugh harder when it's over. I'll go knock on wood now...

The day after I got to Tokyo, I met up with a Japanese friend from Phoenix, who’s there for the summer. We hopped on a bullet train for Himeji, Phoenix’s sister city. I’d been there eight years ago, but it was really great to go back – I got a much better view of the city. Our first stop, once we met up with some acquaintances, was a neat teppanyaki place in a sprawling traditional building that used to be a wealthy person’s home. There was a view of a pretty garden outside the window, and the tatami mats gave way to space for our legs, so we could belly right up to the counter where a white-clad chef was sizzling up pieces of wagyu (i.e. kick-ass Japanese beef that's like buttah).

Himeji’s main street is lovely, with trees along both sides, and Himeji Castle visible in the distance. I made a point of digging my camera out of my suitcase to shoot every step of the way. Like everywhere else in Japan, you have to remove your shoes before entering, so we climbed steep wooden staircases wearing these generic plastic slippers. That was just the beginning of what my sweetie called “Stairmaster 2007” – i.e., Japan. Nothing but walking and climbing stairs, all the time. I think my ass might look a little better in jeans now, but even if it doesn’t, at least I didn’t gain a pound from all the things I ate on vacation. (And Japan is gourmet heaven!)

I also got a nice tour of Kokoen, Himeji’s beautiful garden, courtesy of Mr. Ohkita, who designed Phoenix’s own Japanese Friendship Garden. I could’ve spent all day there, just wandering around, watching koi swim in the ponds and enjoying the scenery.

Later that night, I had dinner at this totally out-of-the-way restaurant called Furusato Biyori, an irori-tei in an old farmhouse next to a river, about 40 minutes outside of Himeji. An irori is an old-fashioned sunken hearth – we sat around it and cooked all kinds of things, from fresh skewered fish, to mochi, to vegetables. In the winter, they hang kettles from these fish-shaped metal hooks that hang off of giant bamboo arms hanging down from the ceiling. It was hot as hell sitting in front of burning charcoals, but the proprietors thoughtfully left a bunch of fans for us to use, and were prompt with bringing cold beer. The sound of rushing water just outside the window made it feel almost refreshing.

Next on my itinerary was Kyoto. It rained almost the whole time, but after so many broilerish days here in Phoenix (pre-monsoon), I was loving it, and felt perfectly comfortable walking around in summery dresses with a flimsy umbrella. I spent a few days there alone, just wandering and being in my head. Then, the day I had a ticket to head back to Tokyo, the craziest thing happened. None of the Tokyo-bound trains were running, because by then, the typhoon had moved north and there was too much rain. I stashed my suitcase in a locker at Kyoto Station and hopped on a bus bound for Myoshinji, a Zen temple that I thought I wouldn’t have time to visit.

When I got there, there weren’t very many tourists (and it was finally sunny!). Myoshinji is a huge complex of subtemples, kind of a town unto itself, several blocks wide by several blocks long. I wandered to one of the subtemples, which seemed deserted but open to the public. A lady inside asked if I’d like a tour. Sure – why not? Then a minute later, a young monk came out – shaved head, robes and all – and greeted me in fluent English. He gave me a very thoughtful, one-on-one tour of the premises, which included a 16th century bell made by Japanese Christians, a nice 17th century karesansui (rock garden) inspired by the Shrine of Ise, and exquisite screen paintings of animals, flowers, and Chinese-style scenes by artist Eigaku Kano (i.e., museum-worthy works of art).

Then, he asked me where I’m from. It turns out, he used to live in Tempe a few years ago. He went to ASU and worked at Café Boa, and we have a few acquaintances in common. Both of our jaws dropped! It was just an unbelievable small world experience, definitely one of the highlights of my trip. To be on the other side of the world, and suddenly feel so close to home…

Anyway, I made it back to Tokyo late that night, and couldn’t shut up about the guy I met.

I revisited a lot of familiar places and neighborhoods this time around, especially once my friends from Phoenix got to Japan. It was fun to show them some of my favorite things, and to try different restaurants with them. We went to my favorite sushi place in the world – a tiny ten-seat bar near the Tsukiji fish market – and had an awesome meal at my friends’ restaurant in Meguro.

And my friends got to witness me being interviewed for Japanese TV (supposedly the episode is airing this Saturday morning), which was fun at the time but completely embarrassing the second I was done. (Of course, they took digital pictures of me, just so I could confirm I looked like a dork.) The camera crew was stopping people on the street to ask them about what they bought that day, so I showed them the bag I’d just purchased, plus the geta my friend had just given me as a present. Nerd alert!

So now I’m happy to be back, and ready to start saving my nickels for next year. I have a ton of photos that I’ll post from home later on . . .

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