Journey to Japan

People value experiences more than material purchases. Case in point is my vacation in Japan from two years ago. Here are the highlights from my first voyage to the empire of the sun:

Cutting a Man in Half

You’ve never truly lived until the day you learn how to slash a man in half with a katana.

The legacy of the samurai flowed through my veins during a 2-hour lesson, in which I fathomed the kesagiri technique of the iaido martial art to quickly dismantle my enemies (who are dummies made from tatami, straw mats).

Osaka Night Walk

Right after the long flight from Norway, I took a pleasant walk through the streets of Osaka. This city has a vibe distinct from the bigger metropolises depicted to Japanese tourism.

Osaka Daytime

During the day, I walked around an older, more dilapidated district of the city and happened upon a mini-Times Square.

Meditating at Osaka Castle

It was the crack of dawn in the coldest week of the year, but people were already gathering for morning exercises at Osaka castle.

I met up with Buddhist monk and a group of adventurers. The monk guided us in a long session of mantra meditation.

Later on in my journey, I visited a Buddhist temple in Fukuoka. I thought I’d mention sand gardens here, because they are a way for meditation.

Transporting by Train

The empire of the sun has one of the best railway systems in the world. The subway exists in every city, while the shinkansen bullet trains and older train systems cover the rest of the countryside. Why drive cars, when trains are safer and allow us to relax while onboard? … Oh yeah, the oil & gas lobbyists.

Himeji Farm Stay

The JR Rail Pass is subsidized for tourists and a fantastic deal to travel around Japan. My 2-week pass allowed me to to hit my next location: Himeji.

Hiking to the Mountain Temples

The farmer drove me nearby to hike the Shoshazan Engyō-ji mountain, which were full of old buildings and temples where feudal lords once lived.

While the hike contributed to my eventual Achilles injury, that day was very significant:

  • Valentine’s Day
  • Anniversary of my becoming a citizen
  • Andrew Yang, my favorite presidential candidate next to Ron Paul, went on Joe Rogan’s podcast which sparked his mass appeal

Imperial Garden

I traveled west a few hours to Okayama prefecture, where I met my old friend, Ken. We used to take names in League of Legends. Now he’s a family man, which is infinitely more fulfilling than dual queuing ranked games.

We had some tsukemon ramen, then he guided me to the Koraku-en imperial garden.

Fukuoka, the Ramen Capital

While ramen is not the main reason I went to Japan, this delightful noodle is the ultimate enhancement to a vacation here.

I spent 2 hours to find the cheapest ramen. I found a shop near a university and that sold a bowl for $3 (300 Yen)

Gaming Event

My original trip was planned around a gaming tournament, EVO Japan. Events like these now have thousands of attendees. From the 1990s when games like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat first appeared in arcades, the videogame industry has risen from $30B to $100B+ today.

This event is also when I first pitched a side project to the figureheads of the community, such as Tom Cannon, the founder of EVO and the developer of the Riot Games fighting game.

Street Food

After years of watching anime, I was determined to eat at a food stall. But these yatai stalls are nearing extinction today.

Fortunately my tour guide recommended me to one of the last existing yatai streets, but he forgot mention that it was through the red light district. Braving those freezing, desolate streets displaying risqué ladies and men into the bustling yatai street, the contrasting atmosphere actually emphasized the food experience.

K-Pop Concert by Accident

I wanted to check out a baseball stadium. I took a 20-minute bus ride only to find a sea of rabid fangirls everywhere. As it turned out, the stadium was the venue of none other than a concert by the most famous K-pop group BTS. In fact, Fukuoka city is located right across the sea from Korea.

Korean dudes wearing make-up: the reason why I couldn’t find affordable rooms near downtown Fukuoka, because of 38000 fangirls bidding up the AirBnB listings.

Koto Playing

Ever since watching the guzheng fight in Kung Fu Hustle and reading a manga about playing koto (because otaku level > 9000), I have wanted to try playing this instrument.

Shinto Shrines Everywhere

Daizaifu Tenmangu is a huge area of traditional Shinto architecture. It started raining midway through the morning.

Cooking Lesson in Nagasaki

The fifth city I’ve come to is the sea-side city of Nagasaki. I had been eating local food up until this point, but it was time to get my hands dirty. With the help of a local grandma, I channeled my Gordon Ramsay.

5 Centimeters Per Second on Mount Inasa

While visiting a mountain-top observatory, I met a Japanese girl in a red bonnet who spoke a little English. She seams kimonos in Kyoto and was taking a vacation in Nagasaki. We visited the observatory and a nearby park.

We said we’d meet up next time I visit Kyoto someday, but if you’ve ever watched 5 Centimeters Per Second, you know how people drift apart. It was a fleeting 3 hours, but as an otaku fan of Makoto Shinkai’s earlier works, I believe there’s a melancholic elegance to fleeting connections that fade over time.

Conversation with a Judo Master

Disregarding all the pretty pictures, the most fulfilling experience I had was a 2 hour conversation with a 62-years-young gentleman, Les. I met him one evening while staying at a co-living hotel (which is an interesting concept in itself).

Les is an illustrator and a martial artist. Les told me that he moved from New Zealand to Japan to learn judo when he was around school age. This got us talking about how most people choose what’s the default option in life. He taught me some concepts on meditation. We remarked upon the materialism in contemporary China in contrast to traditional Chinese values. He told me he was learning iaido: the real sword training, not my tourist katana lessons. There are so many levels to master that it takes a lifetime. His sensei was in his 90s, which made Les and me youngsters. In the States, we do not have the respect for elder experience nor the emphasis on depth of mastery, and we seldom encounter these thought-provoking perspectives.

It’s surprising that my best memory of the trip was a simple chat, but is it actually surprising? It’s fascinating to imbibe wisdom from the experiences of such unique people.

Dutch Theme Park

Huis Ten Bosch is a gargantuan theme park in the hinterlands of Nagasaki prefecture. It tries to model what an old Dutch settlement in the Netherlands would look like.

No other way to end my journey than with a Japanese take on other cultures.

Of course, it wouldn’t be uniquely Japanese without random additions to a historic Dutch settlement: a floating hotel, Japanese entertainment franchises, and a Red Lobster.

Engineer + teacher + gamer

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