Discoveries in the whimsical, swirly, Technicolor, mystifying, sweet, savory, wacky land of wonder that is Japan

Suz with candies in Rox

My sister Suzanne with some of the many mystifying candies in a Tokyo grocery store.

Japan, November, 2015

It’s 11 pm, Tokyo time, and under the ultra stark fluorescent lighting of ROX Department store’s snack section, I fixate on a “Crunky” chocolate bar, debating whether or not it will complement the sake-in-a-juicebox carton I found one aisle over. Having just arrived in Japan and going on nearly 36 hours of little-to-no sleep, I find choosing between the “Crunky”, “Melty Kisses” and “Fettuccine” brand hard candies seems like a monumental decision. The packaging of all displayed candies, snack items and sake flaunt an explosion of fonts, electric colors, Japanese expressions and, in many cases, super charged, albeit ambiguous, characters.

saki juice boxes

Saki juicebox cartons along with individual servings already in drinking glasses.

Penguin turtle closeupIn my near delirious state, I am particularly drawn to a package of fried something, showcasing a green turtle with a yellow penguin-like beak who is decked out in a necktie. He’s hanging out with his lady, a large crustacean who’s pursing her full, red lined, Angelina Jolie lips. The mutant turtle penguin has two identical kids sporting shrimp head shaped winter beanies, complete with antennae. The cold weather gear, upon closer inspection, actually appears to be severed baby (sibling?) shrimp heads.

Somewhat disturbed, I turn to the display of a more recognizable item: Kit Kats. But even surveying the staggering stacks of Kit Kats with their wide array of flavors including, Wasabi, Cognac, Purple Sweet Potato and Matcha (green tea), is overwhelming.

Essentially, despite being tired, I feel like an unsupervised, euphoric kid in this candy store, buying a basket full of crazy goods, including a candy kit of highly accurate looking miniature donuts with every type of sprinkle and glaze imaginable. I’m not sure if the sweets come as pictured or if molds are involved. It looks like some assembly may be required. It doesn’t matter because the end result depicted looks so worth it.

What is this?

In an Osaka gift shop, Suz tries to figure out what the heck this samurai face mask thing is.

That is what I have come to love about the Land of the Rising Sun — it’s a whimsical, swirly, Technicolor, mystifying, sweet, savory, wacky land of wonder. Often, during my first visit, with my sister Suzanne, we had no idea of exactly what we were looking at or what was the actual impetuous for certain cultural phenomena.

So much of what you see in Japan is vaguely familiar yet a new discovery at the same time. The country inherently cultivates a curious mind. You feel giddy, playful and adventurous — like an explorer or a treasure hunter.

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Mornings in the Land of the Rising Sun — “Where is everybody?”

rooster in Hoi An

My fowl friend struts in his Hoi An enclosure.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2014; Bali, Indonesia, 2010 and Japan, November 2015

I am, not by choice, a morning person when traveling to Asia. In fact, during a trip to Vietnam two years ago, I bonded with a rooster. While not actually hanging out with the rooster, I did, from the balcony of my Hoi An hotel room, watch it scurry and strut around a large rubbish pile in its spacious concrete enclosure every morning. A social guy, he roused his buddies around 5:20 a.m. and these other roosters would answer him in a delayed chorus.

ubud courtyard

Finally awake, my son, Eddie, and daughter, Kasey, enjoying our hotel courtyard.

My fowl friend even answered to human concocted cock-a-doodle-doos. This cockerel connection developed, because I was, to my knowledge, the only soul faithfully awake and up with this rooster. No matter how late I went to bed or what type of sleep aid I took, I woke up without fail at 4:30 a.m. every day in Vietnam. It had been the same way on a trip to Bali. A raucous rooster, which often sounded like it was perched atop my suitcase, kept me company, or at least its call did, in the early a.m. as I sat in our Ubud hotel courtyard while my family of heavy sleepers slumbered away.

hoi an balcony

Non-rooster view from the balcony of my Hoi An hotel.

Although not even close to being a natural morning person in the US, I actually appreciated that early dawning time in Vietnam and Bali. Once, I even arose before the rooster routine in Hoi An. I went out on the balcony and sat down on the tiles, which still felt somewhat cool in the already humid air. Palm fronds rustled and even brushed against my shoulder. It was Zennish. While the rooster and I would wake up before the rest of Hoi An, it wouldn’t be long until plastic flip flops thwacked along the pavement below, a radio played high-pitched Vietnamese elevator music and motor scooters revved up along the side street below. Vietnam was waking up. Early. Good Morning, indeed.

This was not the case, however, during my most recent trip to Asia — Japan, specifically. Apparently, people who live in the Land of the Rising Sun don’t necessarily want to get up with it — at least in the cities. Although I did not expect to experience rooster encounters in the middle of Tokyo, I certainly thought the notoriously workaholic residents would be up and running in the early hours of the day.

Asakusa deserted

Asakusa, a district of Tokyo, empty in the early morning.

The Japanese urbanites, I discovered, are not morning people — not like Southeast Asians, who, of course, need to make use of the cooler part of their day. Normally, I would be excited to be among fellow night owls. In fact, I’m slightly bitter about the unfair advantage morning people had in the US, because they were the only ones awake at sunrise to set society’s agenda. Meanwhile we night owls were still sleeping. In Japan, the night owls were working late and set the agenda while the few morning people had already gone to bed.

Eleanor Warnock, an American journalist and self-proclaimed morning person, writes in an expat blog for The Wall Street Journal that the culture shock of the Tokyo timetable and acclimating to it was one of the most challenging aspects of moving to Japan.

“Living overseas means getting used to that city’s timetable – when people get to work and schedule meetings, when stores are open. In Washington [DC], friends squeezed in workouts, blowouts and coffee before work. In Tokyo, people have set their internal clocks a little later.”

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Feeling Japan, “Fast Relax” and “Human”



Tokyo, Japan; November 2015

Why am I so content? Is it the tiny serving of much needed caffeine I had earlier from the “Fast Relax” coffee station at Circle K? Might it be the mild scented incense I watched float and curl up to the heavens at Tokyo’s cherry red accented Senso-ji Temple? Perhaps it’s my fortune from the revered temple, which maintains that, in addition to basically succeeding at every thing I attempt in the near future, I also, “will gradually become famous and peaceful.” Or is it the surprisingly soothing, heated toilet seat at McDonalds?

It could be that I’m on a silent, spotless Tokyo metro heading to a Shinto temple set among ginkgo trees dotted with their gradually goldening split-fan shaped leaves and then on to the ultra hyper Harajuku neighborhood for some shopping, which is another type of worship for me.


No one talks on the metro car — not even my sister, Suzanne, and I.  There is only white noise — the humming of subway sounds and the soothing voice of the conductor. Not able to understand, I only halfway tune into his calm Japanese instructions, yet I appreciate his soft, reassuring tone. Between coming and going, the commuters — students, businesspeople, working moms, shoppers and elderly riders — doze, read anime books and text away on their smartphones.

After the metro arrives at our desired stop, Suz and I quickly exit the subterranean hub. Back up in topside Tokyo, it’s busy, buzzing with energy from people, vehicles and hundreds competing neon lights. To clarify, I’m content but now exhilarated from this electric pace.


It’s this same driven pace that inspired the creation of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, in addition to elevators that can rocket you from the Tokyo Skytree’s fourth floor up to floor 350 at a rate of 600 meters per minute. (Total transport time is about 50 seconds). Even sushi restaurants feature conveyor belts revolving at a consistent clip to move the constant parade of plates featuring various raw and tempura-battered fish selections.

Yet the pace in Japan also slows to the rhythm of an onsen’s gurgling hot springs; the traditional, symbolic stages of a tea ceremony; the meditative bow to a statue of Buddha; and the simulated tranquil trickling waterfall sounds coming from the console of, again, a McDonald’s toilet.

bowing to buddha

The reason for this dual personality pace seems simple. It’s just Japan. That’s why I’m both exhilarated and content. I’m feeling “Japan.”* Indeed. In my estimation, Japan is a state of mind or even a state of being.

Really, Japan is “Fast Relax.”


I love stopping at Tourist Information Offices — especially to find uniquely written English brochures.

Actually, the Land of the Rising Sun, itself, suggests this seemingly contradictory way of life — in English. And it’s not just the Circle K coffee station proclaiming Fast Relax. English language travel publications and signs found at train stations, hotels, grocery stores, convenient stores, visitor centers, shopping malls and museums, present the Fast Relax theme in the text of brochures, leaflets, advertisements, posters and banners.

Japanese copywriters, who tout the message of Fast with facts about high-speed trains and elevators along with innovative industries, heavily embellish their text with high-energy, enthusiastic exclamation points. However, the writers also highlight the idea of Relax by characterizing Japan as a place of  tradition and serenity by using descriptions and phrases that include “tranquil”, “break”, “satisfying”, “sincere care”, “pleasant”, “nostalgic”, “old time”, “time traveled”, “nurtured” and “enjoy a breather.”

It’s worth saying again: Japan is “Fast Relax.”

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Travel Ahh… Temple “Tufts,” “Curls” and Pagoda Points

kyoto pagodas at night

Kyoto, Japan 

Asia (Vietnam, Japan, Indonesia) 

One of the reasons I love Asia so much is because of the architecture — particularly when talking about temples and pagodas. Part of it is the atmosphere created by the devoted, everyday individuals and families who come to worship. I appreciate the sense of calm that pervades along with the burning incense, circling and wafting up to the temple ceilings and then on up to the skies. But also, I really love the tufts, curls and points of the building edges, sides and roofs. I’m sure there are probably more technical terms for these elements of the designs, but the soft, almost dreamy, connotations of “tufts” and “curls” seem quite fitting.

Vietnam (Cham Island, Hoi An)

Indonesia (Bali)

Japan (Kyoto, Osaka)

Vietnam (Hoi An)

Vietnam (Hue) 

Vietnam (Hanoi)

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Warning: Neanderthal in a Japanese Mall


Directly handling money — YIKES!

Directly handling money — YIKES!

Japan: November, 2015

It probably wasn’t until my third or maybe even fourth purchase at a retail store in Tokyo that I finally used the Tray. Evidently, Japanese salespeople wanted money deposited right on the Pay Tray — even if it was a credit card. No touching of bills, cards or coins is necessary. My brazen blunder with money handling became clear when one giftshop employee somewhat frantically grabbed the Tray, located right next to the cash register, after I directly handed her 1,500 yen. The employee carefully laid my money on the Pay Tray, and then she calmly continued the transaction.

The Tray, which can vary in color and size, is generally a black plastic rectangle with slightly raised sides — like a butter dish — and to the best of my knowledge, it is used the same way everywhere. The customer places money for the purchase on the Pay Tray and gives it to the sales clerk who ultimately returns the same Transaction Tray with the change and receipt, often presenting it to the customer with both hands and a bow.

Every store and salesperson I encountered in Tokyo used the Tray. Even the bored, sullen looking sales clerk with fushia hair streaks and multiple piercings at H&M gave me my change on the Tray along with an artful and deliberate bow. According to an article by Alice Gordenker in the Japan Times, change trays, which have many names including, Tsurisen torei, Kaikei-bon, Koin torei and the French term, Karuton, have been used by merchants in Japan since at least 1918.

The Gratitude Attitude

I always tried to make up for any flagrant or potential faux pas by saying, arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), and it wasn’t long before I was delivering a deep bow to salespeople. Despite this show of gratitude, I was still blissfully and ignorantly blundering away. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I delivered an overabundance of bows and appreciation with each visit to a store. My gratitude attitude was in overdrive. This, in turn, set off a chain reaction of reciprocation. Often, in the final stage of the transaction, after I had carefully re-accepted the Tray with both hands (as if I was handed a newborn), I then bowed, said thank you and turned away to leave. Meanwhile, however, as I began to swivel, the sales clerk would launch into yet another round of thank-you’s.

Leaving shoes in the foyer of our hotel room

Leaving shoes in the foyer of our hotel room

Yes, I was a foreigner (gaijin) and unfamiliar with some of the customs, and no one reprimanded me or revealed any outrage at my gaijin gaffes, but I’ve always tried to be respectful and aware of cultural etiquette. I knew, for example, that in Japan, I shouldn’t stare at people or double dip food in the soy sauce. I wasn’t supposed to wear shoes on tatami mats, nor was I to place chopsticks upright in a “V” formation in a bowl of rice. It’s best to avoid symbols of death anywhere you go although I messed up that advice as well. Read on.

Consequently, it was hard to accept that my manners were downright deplorable when it came to shopping, a pursuit with which I always feel in my element. But not so in Japan — I was unrefined. An oaf. Uncouth. Clueless or awkward at best. Essentially, I was a Nippon Neanderthal when it came to the mall.

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Memoirs of a Gaijin (Gringo) Geisha

Here we go!

Here we go!

Kyoto, Japan; November 2015

While Mariko carefully wove the delicate Kanzashi, a Japanese silver hairpin — this one featuring dangling fabric cherry blossoms — into my voluminous, smooth black wig, I tried to ignore the itch on my nose. I didn’t want to smear the thick white makeup she had applied 45 minutes earlier. My eyes also stung slightly from the heavy black eyeliner, but again, the discomfort was worth disregarding so as to avoid messing up Mariko’s work. She next pulled tightly on the green and gold silk obi, securing the long wide fabric sash around my waist. I looked down at my feet in the split-toe ultra bright white socks as the edges of my pink satin lined, purple floral kimono skimmed the floor. Finally, Mariko stepped away and smiled. My transformation was complete. Pursing my red heart-shaped lined lips, I finally turned to look into the full-length mirror. I was a dead ringer — for a drag queen. 

LIFe cover

lonely-planet-Japan-14th-edition (3)

I was going for geisha. Exceptional artists, entertainers, conversationalists, musicians, dancers, titans of tea ceremonies, as well as occasional tolerant minders of drunken businessmen, geishas are the face of Japan — at least the Japan from a foreigner’s perspective. In the US, it has been this way for decades — at least since Japan re-entered the American imagination after World War II. For example, an illustration of a maiko (an apprentice geisha) bowling on a 1964 cover of LIFE magazine enticed readers to examine the feature story touting “restless excitement and a wealth of paradoxes set the mood of modern Japan.”

Geishas have always fascinated me, long before Arthur Golden wrote his famous Memoirs of a Geisha. Consequently, when my sister, Suzanne, and I planned a trip to Japan, I discovered through a Google search — AYA, a full-service photography and makeup studio in Kyoto that conducts complete Geisha Glamour shots — even for gaijins (gringos). I made reservations for the makeover event before we even booked lodging in Kyoto.

Living the Dream.

My grandma's handiwork.

My grandma’s handiwork.


Scan 152The dream of looking like one of the ultimate symbols of Asian beauty, I’m fairly certain, traces back to my early childhood. On a trip to San Francisco in 1969, my parents purchased a gorgeous swath of turquoise Chinese silk fabric embroidered with cherry blossoms. My grandmother, Evis, a talented seamstress, whipped it into a robe that could easily double for a frock straight from the Ming Dynasty designer collection. Apparently, I often toddled around the house as if I came off a kiddie Cantonese catwalk.

For Halloween, when I was two, I wore a red Asian jacket with black trim and a black silk tie that looked like martial arts movie attire — either that or it resembled something that Hugh Hefner would have lounged around in at his Playboy Mansion. It came with a little beret that had a long black braid attached. On top of my blonde, curly hair, the beret looked odd, like it had undergone a severe unraveling in just one particular spot. Wanting to have long dark locks, I often resorted to disguising my hair more completely with a dark brown terry cloth bath towel since it was the closest thing we had to a black wig.

Scan 150

Although my outfits were really more Chinese themed than Japanese, I was groomed, practically since infancy, to appreciate East Asian apparel in general. And naturally, since Suz was the younger sibling, she inherited all the hand-me-downs.

Ultimately, however, there was something I found extra special about the Japanese kimono, which centuries ago evolved from Chinese fashion. An illustration of a family dressed in kimonos, featured in the “clothing” spread of the 1979 World Book Encyclopedia collection that my parents had bought, captivated me. Their colorful floral garments seemed not only comfortable and free flowing but also time honored.

Also, that year, during a family trip to San Francisco’s Japantown, Suz and I saw stunning Japanese geisha dolls at every gift shop in the area. The dolls were usually displayed in a glass case along with mini bonsai trees. The precisely constructed kimonos on each doll offered a reflection of the Land of the Rising Sun and outshone, by far, even the glitter of our beloved Disco Barbie’s roller skating ensemble. Essentially, I concluded the ultimate way to wear a kimono would be to assume the identity of a geisha.

Back to the Maiko Moment — 2015.

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Mariko and I — peace out — Batman!

Ready for the invisible box.

Ready for the invisible box.

Doubts of becoming a graceful geisha, however, surfaced for me early during the makeover. After pulling my hair back tight and fitting it in a hairnet, Mariko applied the standard white makeup to my face, neck and shoulders. While the white, creamy coverage felt smooth, cool and luxurious when Mariko brushed it on my skin, the look it created could easily get me a gig in Central Park as a mime. All I needed was a striped shirt, suspenders, black beret and an invisible box. Or if the market for mimes was flooded, I could definitely fill in as a Joker stunt double for Jack Nicholson if “Batman 17” was in the works.

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