Archive for August, 2009

31st August
written by Hope & Jeremy

31st August
written by Hope

If you like your culture with a dash of comfort, or your peace with a little quiet, then Japan is the name of your travel game. Japan felt like an oasis in the middle of crazy, chaotic Asia, and we found a lot of similarities between the culture here and the one we fell in love with in Taiwan.

Over here at 12FOOT3, Jeremy is the nature lover and I’m the culture vulture, and Japan has got enough to keep us both happy. From fashion, art, style, and design in Tokyo to forests, flowers, and bamboo in Koyasan, (or the intersection of nature and culture in Naoshima), Japan has got it all. Go, and let us know what you think. We’re pretty sure you’ll love it too.

view of tokyo from mori tower
View of Tokyo Tower from the Mori building.

japanese countryside
The Japanese countryside, somewhere between Osaka and Naoshima.

Days spent here: 19

Highlights: There wasn’t a place we didn’t like: Tokyo, Kyoto, Koyasan, Naoshima, Takayama—each big city or little town was fabulous in its* own way. Shirahama was a bit resort-y for our tastes, but since we were there before the start of the “official” beach season, it was empty and quiet. That, and the fabulous onsen on the beach, made it worth the trip.

* Hi Adam!

sakino-yu, shirahama
Sakino-yu onsen in Shirahama. The Pacific Ocean crashes over the wall into the cold pool.

Places we would like to visit next time: For us, it’s less about where we’ll go next time and more about when we’ll go. We’ll gladly return to Japan in spring (cherry blossom season), autumn (fall colors painting the Japanese maples), or winter (snow sitting on temple rooftops).

okunoin cemetary, koyasan
A taste of what autumn in Japan might look like. Taken in Okunoin cemetery, Koyasan.

Average daily expenditures: US$240 (Ouch! Though a good US$50 a day was due to our JR Rail passes.)

Prices: Yup, Japan is expensive. Food is expensive, accommodation is expensive (see the accommodation section below to find out why), and public transport is…guess what? Expensive. In return for parting with your hard-earned cash, you get fabulous food, a high level of comfort and cleanliness in the guest houses, and some of the fastest, easiest, and most convenient transport experiences you can find in this world. In other words, you get what you pay for in Japan. But be prepared to pay a lot.

Weather: We were traveling in Japan during the supposed “rainy season” (June), though it only rained hard twice (and then boy did it rain!). Most days were overcast, humid, but not too hot (maybe mid-70s to 80s?).

rainy day harajuku, tokyo
Rainy day Harajuku.

Language: Hey you out there! Yeah, you…the one who thinks all Asians look alike and wouldn’t be able to tell a Beijing babe from a Tokyo Tomo. Well, guess what? You’re off the hook for cultural insensitivity, because apparently Asians think all Asians look alike too. EVERYONE in Japan thought I was Japanese and would rattle on to me for several minutes before they caught on to my blank stare. I would have the following conversation with at least one Japanese person every day:

Japanese Person: Irashaimase! Tekka tekka tekka tekka tekka HAI! Tekka HAI! Tekka tekka tekka HAI!
Hope: Uh, watashi wa…
JP: [waiting patiently]
H: …nihongo ga…
JP: [still waiting patiently]
H: …wakari masen*. (Translation: “Um…I don’t understand Japanese”)
JP: Oooaawwaahh**! HAI!

* I had to learn this phrase immediately upon leaving Tokyo.
** Japanese people make the most amazing sound effects.

Food: Yo, it’s good.

One thing I forgot to mention in my food post—some of you are probably wondering what the deal is with the $40 melon or the $60 grapes you hear so much about. It’s not like Japanese people have to take out a second mortgage in order to eat fruit. Rather, these are gift items—a $40 melon is a token that shows your appreciation for the receiver of said fruit. See, everyone knows that THAT is the $40 melon, and the receiver will know it too.

Accommodation: A big chunk of your travel budget in Japan will go towards accommodation. Why? Well, in Japan, rather than paying for a room, you pay by the person. So if you are a single person traveling, you might get a room to yourself for ¥4000 (about US$40). But a couple staying in a similar room will have to pay ¥8000. That’s just the way they do things in Japan. Them’s the breaks.

Budget places tend to run between ¥3000 to ¥4000 (US$30-40) per person per night. So even a budget hotel will cost a couple US$80 per night. For that reason, Tokyo and Kyoto are a good place to try to use miles on hotels if your mileage program will let you do so, because housing is extra expensive in the big cities. You can also try JAPANiCAN, which often has great deals on accommodation.

A typical Japanese-style room (though this one is quite spacious).

If you’re traveling on a budget, you’ll want to look for shukubo (temple lodgings), kokumin shukusha (”people’s lodges”), and minshuku (the Japanese version of bed and breakfast, downmarket from the fabulous ryokan). Sometimes a minshuku will offer you a choice of Western or Japanese-style room. We always opted for the Japanese-style accommodation, which means your room will have tatami mats, a small coffee table surrounded by cushions or chairs (like the one pictured above), your bed will be a futon mattress stored in the closet and brought out at night, and your pillow will be stuffed with buckwheat.

Again, despite the high costs, you will get quality from Japanese hotels and guest houses—your room will come with a cute kimono-style robe, a tea set and hot water heater, and (if you stay in the Super Hotel in Kyoto) your choice of pillows (buckwheat, memory foam, or feather, of different densities and thicknesses). Plus a little Japanese atmosphere to boot if you choose the local style accommodation.

Transit: Japan’s national rail system is really, really amazing. You can get to every corner of the country…and often at no additional cost if you spring for the JR Rail Pass. Granted, the pass is not cheap, but you definitely get what you pay for. The trains are super fast, efficient, ultra clean, and comfortable.

on the train from takayama to tokyo
On the train from Takayama to Tokyo.

I know that Tokyo’s Metro is supposedly a transit lover’s dream come true, but we found it hard to navigate at times (seriously, the maps look like a pile of multi-colored noodles!).

Internet: As we’ve come to find on our travels so far, Japan adheres to the unwritten international commandment of “developed countries shall be stingy with their wifi.” If our guest house did not have wifi, we could sometimes find an unlocked connection on the street. Of course, my iPod Touch chose to break down in this country, which made it even harder to keep up with friends and family back home. I ended up buying a new iTouch in Tokyo (interestingly, one of the cheapest places in the world to get one…but only by a little bit).

Culture: What you’ve heard about Japan is true—people are exceedingly polite. But Japan is also a rules-based society, and as our hosts Joy and Alex explained, you can ask a person for directions and they are so polite that they walk you to your destination—but ask them to do anything (ANYTHING!) that is against the rules or the process, and you’re in for a long struggle. Put the mustard on the side? Substitute lettuce for tomato? I don’t think so, Mr. Big Shot Rule-Breaker Man! The problem is, again, Japanese people are so polite that they won’t just come right out and say “no.” Instead, they’ll talk around it…you’ll get answers like: “that might be difficult” or “um, I will need to ask if that is possible.” This cultural trait generally does not affect visitors much, but I imagine if you are a Westerner working in Japan (as Joy and Alex are), this can be really frustrating.

schoolkids in koyasan
Schoolkids in Koyasan. Don’t they already look like good citizens? :)

The other insight our ex-pat friends shared with us: you don’t want to be around when a repressed Japanese person finally goes postal. Japan is exceedingly safe, but Joy admitted that the one time she ever feels scared in Japan is when someone is losing it. We saw a guy in Tokyo try to run another guy over at least 3 times (they were having some sort of argument).

The following video is really only tangentially related to the above topic, but it’s pretty funny so I thought I’d share:

The point of this “game” is to pop the other kids’ balloons mounted on their side of their helmet. WITH A STICK. About 12 seconds into the video, you can see one kid fall down and then all all the other kids start wailing on him/her.

The other well-documented aspect of Japanese culture is their obsession with the absurd. You’ve probably seen many examples of this, from Japanese game shows to useless inventions, etc. But the cutest example of Japanese weirdness has to be the raccoon dog. These little statues are everywhere, and they are called tanuki, a mythical creature that is jolly and mischievous. Our campsite in Naoshima even had a sign telling the raccoon dogs not to eat shoes or steal food (wish I took a picture of that)

these funny possum statues are all over japan

Tanuki are characterized by their big pot bellies and get this—their humorously large testicles. I am not joking—there is even a schoolyard song about them:

Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa,
Kaze mo nai no ni,
Bura bura

Roughly translated, this means “Tan-tan-tanuki’s testicles, there isn’t even any wind but still go swing-swing-swing.”

I got all this from the Wiki entry so it MUST be true.

In short: It’s really, really lovely in Japan.

28th August
written by Hope

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: Japanese food is amazing. For any foodie whose palette prefers the fresh over the rich and the pleasure of a perfectly ripe vegetable over the heaviness of a cream sauce, Japan is your culinary heaven. (Though they do have some pretty rich dishes too…ramen, I’m looking at you…). Sure, Jeremy and I love Japanese food in the States too, but before coming to the Land of the Rising Sun, we didn’t realize just how bad the Japanese food in San Francisco was. Seriously, compared to the real thing on the other side of the Pacific, San Francisco’s Japanese food is just…sad. And limited too! Who knew there was more to Japanese food than sushi and some salty noodles in broth? Well, we do, now.

Kushi Katsu

kushi katsu platter, tokyo

This is possibly our favorite type of meal (after sushi) in Japan. Quite simply, it’s fried stuff on sticks. More eloquently, kushi katsu consists of vegetables, fish, and meat, rolled in panko breadcrumbs and fried to a golden perfection for not a minute too long or a second too short. On sticks.

The eating of said stuff-on-sticks is no county-fair dine-and-dash. No, no…kushi katsu dining is quite an experience. A typical menu might look something like this:

Pumpkin: ¥400
Eggplant: ¥800
Squid: ¥1400
Sea Eel: ¥2000
Asparagus: ¥2400
Green onion wrapped in pancetta: ¥3200

Now, this doesn’t mean that a green onion wrapped in pancetta is US$32, despite what you’ve heard about prices in Japan. Rather, this is a set menu: you start with pumpkin and wherever you stop eating, that’s what you pay for dinner (i.e., if you eat all the items listed above, you pay ¥3200). Along the way, you dip the stuff-on-sticks into a number of different sauces and spices, including parsley salt, mustard, shoyu, some sort of paprika/cayenne mix, and Worcestershire (the Japanese LOVE Worcestershire sauce!). Salad, pickles, and sliced veggies get the same dip treatment and are a refreshing source of roughage for the meal. But the star of the show is the veggies’ fried companions—Jeremy and I just can’t get over how perfectly everything is cooked. We all know how easy it is to overcook something when you’re frying it, but in kushi katsu, the veggies stay crisp and fresh inside their breadcrumb casing, and meat/fish is perfectly tender and done. And, IT’S ON STICKS.


tonkatsu yum!

This is a pork cutlet rolled in panko breadcrumbs, and then (like kushi kastu), fried to absolute perfection. It comes with a side of finely shredded cabbage, rice, and pickles. Along with the usual shoyu and Worcestershire sauce, you also get a small mortar filled with sesame seeds, which you grind with a pestle and then dump into a sauce mixture. Said sauce mixture is them used to either flavor your deep fried pork, or to dress that finely shredded cabbage.

Sushi and sashimi

sashimi yum, takayama

This might be the most obvious statement ever made by (wo)mankind, but sushi is really good in Japan. We just didn’t realize how good it as going to be. Saying that the fish is like buttah is actually an insult to the fish. It’s better than butter…it’s more like eating the most perfectly clean, perfectly firm, perfectly tender, creamy, delicious piece of the ocean. And here’s the best-kept secret in Tokyo: sushi for lunch is the best deal you can get. For a few bucks more than a bowl of ramen, (about ¥1100, or US$11), you can get a gorgeous 12-piece sushi set lunch. Your taste buds and you wallet will be equally psyched.

Japanese Wagyu Beef

hida beef on magnolia leaf with miso paste, takayama

I think all we need to say about wagyu is that it’s marbled, fatty goodness. We sort of fell in love with Hida beef in Takayama…the photo above shows a special dish from the region wherein some chunks of fatty Hida beef get grilled on top of a magnolia leaf spread with miso paste.

We also had some delicious Kobe in Tokyo, with fresh lime squeezed on top and dipped in salt.

yummy kobe beef with lime


tempura, tokyo

Here’s the biggest shock of them all: tempura is serious culinary business in Japan. No, really: it’s considered an art form, and it’s expensive. Any self-respecting tempura chef would want to commit some hari-kari if he saw the limp and batter-sunken veggies that we get in the States. Also, you don’t just get the same old dipping sauce for every piece of tempura. Some items (like the squid I ordered), come with chili powder, salt, and lime. Others come with a curry powder as your dip. It’s all matched to the item in a way that complements the fried interior.

In conclusion: blah blah blah perfectly fried. Blah blah blah crisp veggies blah. Blah tender meat and fish blah blah. Bob Loblaw. You get it, right?


Once we left Tokyo (and had to pay for housing), ramen became the meal we ate at least once a day, because it’s cheap and filling. And yet, we never tired of that rich, fatty, salt-bomb. Some ramen shops let you “customize” your bowl of noodles…choosing the doneness of the noodles, the fattiness of the broth, the number of spring onions you want, and the amount of chili powder they throw in on top. Hey it’s Japan, and you can have it your way. We visited a ramen shop in Tokyo where each diner was given a questionnaire when they sat down in their eating booth (imagine an exam stall or a phone booth). It felt like we were taking a ramen test! Spoiler alert: we passed with flying colors.

ramen questionnaire, tokyo
My ramen questionnaire.

my ramen booth, tokyo
My ramen-eating stall.

Even if you don’t get to customize all the different elements of your ramen bowl, you can at least choose the broth. Most self-respecting ramen shops have at least four kinds: shio (salt), tonkotsu (pork bone), shoyu (soy sauce), or miso. By far the best bowl of ramen we had was at Santoka in Kyoto. I had the shoyu broth and Jeremy had the shio…but what made this bowl of noodles a standout was the fatty pork cheek meat. Yes, I said pork cheeks. You can wipe the drool off your keyboard now.



If kushi katsu was our favorite dish (after sushi, which is in a category all it’s own), then izakaya is our favorite type of meal. If ramen is the dish you eat at 3AM after a night of drinking sake, then izakaya is what you eat while you’re drinking said sake. Basically it’s pub food, but of course, the Japanese take it to a whole other level, with inventive dishes like pork stew drizzled with radish puree, or sesame tofu.

Homemade sesame tofu. Eaten at a fantastic restaurant that may or may not be called Ichi (website is in Japanese, so I can’t tell).

deep-fried fish, tokyo
Deep-fried fish, impressively presented. Eaten at yet another amazing izakaya named Kinsai.

roasted pork loin from vinpicoeur, tokyo
OK, this is just a plate of roasted pork, but we were so impressed with the size of this dish, I just had to include this picture. Eaten at Vinpicoeur.

The point is, it’s varied (so you get to taste a bunch of different stuff), it’s good, and you wash it all down with a cold beer, a shot of sake, or (Joy’s favorite drink) a glass of plum wine mixed with soda water (very refreshing!).

Shabu shabu

shabu shabu at joy & alex's, tokyo

I grew up eating Taiwanese-style hot pot for holiday dinners, but I have to say, shabu shabu is different. First of all, the ingredients are cooked in stages: the meat is thrown in the pot first, in order to create a soup base for the vegetables, noodles, and tofu (in Chinese/Taiwanese hot pot, you just throw everything in all at the same time). Second, the meat used is super fatty wagyu beef, which creates a rich, delicious broth very quickly. And finally, instead of dipping your boiled goodies in a raw egg and soy sauce mix (like you do with Taiwanese hotpot), Japanese people grate a radish and add Ponzu sauce as their dipping mixture. I have to admit…Taiwanese hot pot will always hold a special place in my heart, but on taste alone, I think I might prefer the Japanese version (eek…don’t tell the Taiwanese food police!).

In a fit of complete decadence, we ate the above meal as a second dinner in Joy’s apartment while simultaneously watching Tampopo. Is it possible to get more gluttonous? I think not.

Japanese Pickles

pickles in the nishiki food market

Anyone who knows me knows that I love a good pickle. So believe me when I say this: the Japanese KNOW how to pickle. It’s not just that the veggies are perfectly crisp and salted…but there are other, unexpected flavors in the mix too, like a hint of shiso, or a touch of spice. A lovely surprise coming from the land of “we-only-know-how-to-use-dill.”

pickle on a stick! kyoto
It’s a pickle. On a stick! Taken in Kyoto, Japan.

Japanese Desserts

Japan is famous for it’s Kyoto candies, but we hear they’re usually not actually very good (just pretty). In general, Asians prefer much less sugar in their desserts than Americans do (growing up, the biggest compliment my family could give to a cake was “it’s not too sweet!”). So, Japanese desserts were perfect for my tastebuds.

Green tea shaved ice.

Jeremy eating black sesame ice cream.

pan-ice, tokyo
Apologies for the bad photo quality, but this thing was too good not to share. It’s called pan-ice, and it’s vanilla ice cream *inside* some slices of french bread. [Drool.] Eaten at Ichi.

The stuff we didn’t take pictures of

Kushiyaki: Grilled stuff on sticks. It’s good, and it’s inventive. Think enoki mushrooms wrapped in pork, spring onions wrapped in pancetta, grilled soy nuts, etc.
Okonomiyaki: The most un-Japanese dish we tried, mostly because it’s really messy. Okonomiyaki is basically an omelette or a pancake, filled with stuff, and then finished with a bunch of toppings, sauces (ahem, Worcestershire), and bonito flakes. We weren’t crazy about this dish, but I don’t think we gave it a fair shot—we only had it at a festival fair booth.

The weird stuff

OK, not everything in Japan is haute cuisine. This one made me scratch my head and think, really?!? Really, Japan?!? Like, for real?

noodle sandwich with mayonnaise, shirahama
Noodle sandwich with mayo. Yum?

Maybe you can wash it down with some protein water? Or some shiso-flavored Pepsi?

protein water looks...interesting


21st August
written by Hope

Traveling around-the-world on around-the-world tickets is a really affordable way to do an extended trip…but what you gain monetarily, you lose in convenience. The main restriction is that traveling overland counts as a leg, and since you’re only allowed 16 legs on your trip, it makes sense to try and fly out of the same city you flew into (for example, if we arrived in Japan via Tokyo, but we traveled via train to Osaka and wanted to leave from there, that trip would eat up one of our flights). This restriction only feels like a restriction when you aren’t too crazy about the city you flew into (ahem, Bangkok), but in the case of Tokyo, we were thrilled to get back to see Joy and Alex, eat more yummy food, and soak up some more Japanese culture before heading back to China.

Going back to Tokyo also gave us a chance to walk around the Imperial Palace Park, which we hadn’t done yet:

imperial palace park, tokyo

It also allowed us to squeeze in a few more tasty restaurants. Apparently, after our first stay in Tokyo (and after our hostess found out how much we like eating), Joy started researching reasonably-priced restaurants for us to visit on our return. We had a fabulous meal at a French restaurant that was no larger than a postage stamp but still managed to fit a WHOLE PIG inside their tiny little space:

vinpicoeur french restaurant, tokyo
At Vinpicoeur “French Barbecue and Wine” Restaurant (+81 3-6212-1011) in the Ginza district of Tokyo. Yes, that’s a whole pig hanging in the back left of the restaurant.

AND (perhaps most importantly), Joy took us out for karaoke night! WITH COSTUMES!!! Now, if you know my family, you know that the karaoke gene runs deep with the Mengs. My brother goes to karaoke night every week (sometimes twice) in SF, my Dad has owned a laser disc karaoke machine since the early 90’s (with a gold microphone), and J and I had karaoke at our wedding. But if there is anything J and I (ok, *I*) love more than karaoke, it’s costumes. So costumes plus karaoke in one night was like discovering peanut butter and chocolate for the first time. In other words, it was DESTINY.

why yes, those are wigs i am using as pom poms
Singing “Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani in a schoolgirl outfit. Why yes, I am using wigs as pom-poms.

this one's for all our fans out there
Me and Joy. Feelin’ it.

Note to the budget-minded: karaoke in Tokyo is definitely not cheap. Those three hours in the karaoke room kinda blew the budget for the day, but it was worth it!

We love Tokyo and could actually imagine living here (if the apartment sizes doubled and the rents were cut by 50% OR if we won the lottery), and that is in no small part due to our amazing hosts. If you ever decide to quit your day jobs, Joy and Alex, you might want to consider teaching classes in hospitality, because you ROCK at it! Thanks for an incredibly tasty, boozy, and most of all, FUN time, Joy and Alex!

at our last dinner in tokyo

18th August
written by Hope

Hiya! Just a quick note to let you know that we’ve added a couple of features to our map. Now, when you click on a destination on the map or a portion of the timeline, not only will you see a link to all blog posts mentioning that destination (provided I’ve blogged about it), but you’ll also see a link to our photos of that place on Flickr (provided I’ve uploaded them)! Handy, huh? Note that since I’m a bit behind on the posts, you will only see active links for our travels through Japan.

PLUS, since the blog and our actual location are not always in sync (for example, we’re in Turkey right now, but our blog is only updated through Takayama), we’ve added a little icon on the map to let you know where we are…Right. This. Second. So, if you find yourself wondering “where the heck are Hope and Jeremy?” just check the map! We promise to update this far more often than we post. Cross our hearts.

And, here’s a taste of where we’re at now:

turkish ladies on the ferry across the sea of marmara
Turkish ladies on the ferry across the Sea of Marmara.

16th August
written by Hope

“Hey, did you guys hear the news?”

I was sitting in the communal kitchen of Zenkoji temple, another shukubo (temple lodging) where we were laying our heads for a short stay in Takayama, a town near the Japanese Alps. In the kitchen eating breakfast next to me were an American teacher from Connecticut and a young Jewish couple who were new parents. The voice asking us the question belonged to another traveler, who was headed to the train station.

“Michael Jackson just died. Farrah Fawcett, too.”

There were a few “oh, wow”s and some other exclamations of surprise, and then…it was on with the morning conversation about how lovely Japan is.

zenkoji temple, takayama
The main altar at Zenkoji temple.

I can remember very clearly where I was when I heard that Princess Diana had passed away (in my college apartment in Berkeley, tying my shoes to go for a run). But in some ways Michael’s death was marked more by what a non-event it was for those travelers in Takayama. Blame our nonchalance on the kind of peaceful acceptance of circumstance that the Japanese countryside inspires, or perhaps it was just remoteness, but Michael Jackson (or anything Hollywood-related, for that matter), felt really, really far away from Takayama.

Some people describe Takayama as a “mini-Kyoto,” and the description feels accurate. The town, though large, feels intimate, with main streets bisected by hidden alleys and lanes, where little gems of restaurants are just waiting to be discovered.

i can't believe i ate the whole thing!
I can’t believe I ate the whole thing! J finishing off a bowl of Hida beef ramen. Mmm…sooo fatty. Sooo good.

The star attraction in Takayama is Hida-no-sato (Hida Folk Village), an “open-air museum” of Japanese farm houses that were moved to this idyllic setting in the 1950s when many of these traditional homes were knocked down to build a dam (seems like China isn’t the only one to displace a bunch of it’s residents for a dam).

We saw many different thatched roof houses and interiors; most floor plans were centered around an interior fire pit that was the center of action in the home.

hida-no-sato, takayama

hida-no-sato, takayama

hida farm outhouse, takayama
This is what a old Japanese farm’s toilet looked like.

You know if I lived in the Japanese mountains, I totally would have rocked these hot straw go-go boots:

straw boots, takayama
The Japanese mountain equivalent of Uggs.

We spent the rest of our time exploring the town by foot and bike, riding down narrow streets lined with traditional Japanese houses in the Sanmachi traditional buildings area.

biking through sanmachi district, takayama
Biking down Furui Machi-nami, a street with many old private Japanese homes.

And Jeremy finally got to indulge his fantasy of being a shogun!

shogun jeremy, takayama

We could have easily stayed a few extra days in Takayama. Next time, we’d like to see nearby Shirakawa-go, which has A-frame houses surrounding a mountain lake. We loved our peaceful time in this idyllic mountain town, and we won’t soon forget where we were when the world lost the King of Pop.

12th August
written by Hope

It’s hard to know what to do after a family member’s death, especially when you’re traveling. It doesn’t feel right to dwell on the event, but it doesn’t feel right to just move on to the next town, either. In this way, I feel like Jeremy and I were blessed to be in Japan during Grandpa Bob’s passing. The country is so peaceful that it promotes a meditative quality in it’s visitors (at least, it did for us). Being in Shirahama during Grandpa Bob’s passing was really the second best place on earth we could have been (other than by his side)…something about looking into that deep blue ocean horizon allowed us to process the event and come to terms with our feelings about his death from afar. And our next stop had a similar replenishing effect on our spirits: Naoshima, a small, sleepy island between Honshu and Shikoku, is known for being a public space dedicated to contemporary art. What better way to replenish the soul than to sleep on the beach (in Mongolian yurts, no less), and wander around a sleepy fishing village searching for public art installations?

tsutsuji-so yurt village at night, naoshima
Tsutsuji-so yurt village at night, a Mongolian pao encampment on Naoshima’s swimming beach.

the interior of our yurt, naoshima
The interior of our yurt.

The way that Naoshima expresses its artistic dedication is threefold. First, there are public artworks that can be found all around the island. Our absolute favorite was “Pumpkin” by Yayoi Kusama. It was set up on a dock off the swimming beach, and if the tide is high enough, the dock gets swallowed by the waves, making the pumpkin look as if it is floating on the water.

We weren’t the only ones who loved “Pumpkin.” All day long, kids and adults alike were wandering by, marveling at the piece and leaving with huge smiles on their faces. I’ve seen work by Yayoi Kusama before (easily recognizable by the polka dot theme throughout her work). Even though her pieces tend towards this Pop-y aesthetic, the roots of her work are actually quite dark. Read more about her on Wikipedia: she’s really quite fascinating.

In the Honmura district of Naoshima, there are a number of old Japanese houses that have been renovated by international artists. Known as the Art House Project, there are six different homes scattered around the district that have been gutted and installed with artwork. The most interesting exterior is definitely Haisha house by Shinro Ohtake, which basically looks like a giant collage of found objects:

exterior of haisha art house (by Shinro Ohtake), naoshima

The interior of Haisha house is also super funky (there is a giant white replica of the Statue of Liberty in one of the rooms). Though the house is visually striking, I am finding myself unimpressed with artwork these days unless it provokes an emotional response. This is something I am reaching for in my own work (not always successfully, but I’m working on it), whether that ideal is expressed through design, or photography, or even textiles. So I sort of ended up walking through Haisha house and marveling at all the stuff, but not really feeling a cohesive message or emotional connection to the work.

One piece that did provoke a more visceral response was “Backside of the Moon” by James Turrell. The building itself was essentially a rectangular box (Japanese minimalism at it’s best) designed by Tadao Ando (I think the building is considered a separate work of art entitled Minamidera). You are led into the pitch black space, and you sit there for about 8 minutes until your eyes adjust to the darkness. After your cones get used to the blackness, a rectangle of light appears in the far wall of the building, and you are allowed to walk towards the light from the back of the room. I found the experience quite interesting, because in the darkness, your depth perception gets thrown completely out of whack…you cannot discern how far away the back wall is, and you can’t feel the size of the space either. Jeremy was rather unimpressed with the piece, but I found it quite powerful. When else are you forced to engage with a work of art like that? When was the last time a piece instilled the opposing feelings of peace and fear in you?

One piece we did agree on was Kadoya house by Tatsuo Miyajima. The entire front room of the house had been turned into a shallow pool with digital LED numbers submerged in the water. Each LED was counting down at a different rate. To me, the pool was almost like a city, with each number representing a person: some moved fast, some moved more slowly, each one at it’s own pace. Jeremy saw the pool as a “primordial sludge,” and I thought this added an extra dimension to my interpretation of the piece. Was Kadoya a representation of evolution, with some species persisting and others burning themselves out? Kind of hard to explain without a visual, huh? Well, it’s a total shame, but you cannot take photos in any of the Art Houses or museums on this little island. For weeks after we left the island, I kept lamenting to Jeremy, “Oh the pictures I could have taken in Naoshima!” Fortunately, I was able to harvest an image of Kadoya from the web, though I don’t think it does the piece justice:

Interior of Kadoya house. Each of those lights in the water is an LED number counting from 0 to 9 at different rates. (image source)

The final and most impressive way in which Naoshima dedicates itself to contemporary art is through it’s museums. There are two on the island: Benesse Art House and Chichu Art Museum. I’m not going to talk much about Benesse House, because Jeremy and I weren’t very impressed with the work there—though it is worth mentioning that you can actually stay at the museum if you’re looking for a way to spend US$500 per night: the upper floor of the galleries is a fancy hotel, with original artworks in each room.

On the other end of the spectrum, Chichu Art Museum is, hands down, the most fantastic museum I’ve ever experienced. It is the most cohesive expression of nature, art, and architecture I’ve ever seen. Again, no photos were allowed in the museum (”Oh the pictures I could have taken in Naoshima!”), but I’ll do my best to describe it along with some photos I’ve found on Flickr.

First, the building itself: Tadao Ando designed a super sleek, modernist concrete building into the side of a mountain. You might think that the minimalism of modern architecture would be too severe against the beauty of the Japanese countryside, but the architect has managed to instead create these indoor/outdoor spaces where the building is framing, rather than containing the nature around it.

A small courtyard with bamboo shoots. The way these walls framed the sky was fantastic too. (image source)

“Open Sky” by James Turrell. (image source)

Second, the artwork: there are only 9 pieces in the entire building (not counting the building itself) made by 3 different artists: Claude Monet (5 paintings from the Waterlilies series), James Turrell (3 pieces), and Walter de Maria (1 installation). The Monet paintings are the only pieces not made specifically to be housed in the building, but in the case of this artist, the building was made to house the Monets. Now, let’s get one thing straight: I like Monet just fine, but I wouldn’t say that I am excited by his work. But I literally gasped when I walked into the Waterlilies room. Ando has planned it so that as you walk into the space, the largest painting is perfectly framed between two non-load bearing walls. Now THAT’S what you call good interior design: predicting the way a visitor will move through the space, and then rewarding them when they do as you expect. Though the museum is all underground, the rooms are still it by natural light. There is enough space within the gallery so that you can stand far away from the massive paintings, and yet you can also walk up close to observe individual brushstrokes. Ando was clearly a huge fan of the Waterlilies series to treat it with this level of respect. For the first time ever, I witnessed a gallery elevate a piece of art, rather than receding to the background. Any artist would be thrilled to have their work treated with this kind of sensitivity and reverence.

And it wasn’t just the Monet room that thrilled. I also loved Walter de Maria’s installation “Time/Timeless/No Time.”

Walter de Maria’s “Time/Timeless/No Time.” (image source)

Though it might not look like much in the photo, the beauty of this piece is that it is constantly changing. Light shines in through the skylight and reflects off the gold bars along the walls in different ways according to the position of the sun. As the viewer walks through the room, s/he is reflected in the large black ball in the center of the room, creating a lovely fusion between the observer and the observed. Again, nature, art, and architecture work together to make this piece. Without one, there cannot be the others.

Wandering around Naoshima truly replenished our spirits. Though not technically an earthwork, this little island in the middle of the Seto Sea accomplishes what the best earthworks intend to do: force the viewer slow down, observe, and contemplate the way in which humans can elevate our experience of nature. Bravo, Naoshima!

A few more scenes from around Naoshima:

water lilies, naoshima

seaweed, naoshima

4th August
written by Hope

When we told our friends and family that we were going to go through with this 1+ year around-the-world idea, reactions fell all across the spectrum. The great majority of people were supportive, a lot expressed jealousy, but a few seemed concerned. How could we possibly make it a whole year sleeping in a different bed every night? Wouldn’t it be hard eating restaurant food all the time? Wouldn’t we miss our house, a place to call home?

Of course, I was scared of all these things too before we left. It has been really interesting being on the road and realizing that all those things you think you need, you really don’t. Sure, we miss a few things: Jeremy misses his bike, and I miss my sewing machine (and my closet) (ok, and my shoes). But most days we enjoy the simplicity of living out of a bag and we don’t miss THAT much about San Francisco.

Except our family and friends. (OK, and maybe Mission burritos.)

We’ve had a couple of people tell us that we were “brave” for going on this trip, and while I can see where they are coming from, I think that far and away the most courageous thing we’ve done is to find peace with the fact that we will be missing out on 1+ year of our friends’ and families’ lives. Many of our friends at home are having babies or getting pregnant and of course we want to share in those life-changing experiences with them. Both Jeremy and I have ailing grandparents and every moment we spend with them is precious. We knew what we would be missing out on and yet, we still left. We left with only the conviction that this trip was the right thing for us to do at the right time. We left knowing that we would be stealing time from our friends and family but feeling certain that the quality of what we would be able to give them when we came back would be greater. I can think of no “braver” act than that on this trip (even eating the hairy cow rumen). Inertia can be a powerful thing to overcome.

All of this came to a head in Shirahama, a beach town south of Osaka that faces the Pacific Ocean. We decided to go there on a whim…we hadn’t planned to see the coast at all, but we read that there was a nice beach there with an outdoor onsen (mineral hot spring), and since we could get there free using our Japan Rail passes, we decided to go for it.

Since we hadn’t really planned on visiting Shirahama, we didn’t have accommodation booked, but luckily the train station had a tourist information center that could help us. I was busy working with the nice lady at the counter when Jeremy turned to me with his sad face (and if you haven’t seen Jeremy’s sad face, it is really heartbreaking).

Jeremy’s Grandpa Bob, an incredible man who, up until his late 80’s, was still bodysurfing in the Pacific, had passed away.

the pacific ocean as seen from shirahama

Fighting back tears (rather unsuccessfully, I might add), we booked a room for the night and boarded the town bus towards our minshuku (Japanese B&B). I’ll tell you what, of all the bumpy, sweaty, scary, torturously long bus rides we’ve endured on the trip thus far, there was never a harder transport moment than those 10 minutes it took us to get from the train station to our B&B, trying to hold it together until we got to the privacy of our room.

There is something poetic about the fact that we had come to Shirahama, a town facing the Pacific Ocean, surely the last ocean that Grandpa Bob—a lifelong lover of the beach—last swam in. When I look at the photos of our time in Shirahama, I see only his presence.

He was with us when we walked on Senjo-jiki (a.k.a. Thousand Tatami Mat Point—locals think the rocks are so wide and flat that they look like a thousand tatami mats all strung together)…

senjo-jiki, shirahama

He was with us when we wandered around Sandan-heki (Three Step Cliff)…

me on sandan-heki, shirahama

He was with us when we soaked in the waters of Sakino-yu onsen, a hot spring on the beach with ocean waves crashing into the cold pool…

sakino-yu, shirahama

He was with us when we swam in the Pacific…

shirarahama beach

And he was definitely with us as we watched the sun lower over that very same ocean…

shirarahama beach

Grandpa Bob died at the age of 93, surrounded by all three of his children and some of his grandchildren. His passing, as his life, was full of grace and beauty. We love you, Grandpa Bob.