After the stand up bar we had questions about pachinko. Was it the devil as we had been led to believe?
The first thing you need to know is if you’ve never heard of pachinko before…… Yes you have. If you’ve ever watched The Price Is Right and a game called Plinko….it’s like that. You send something down a board that is covered in nails or things for it to hit and bounce on. In Japan there’s are huge huge parlours of these games like casinos in North America because you can win money…..sort of.
The second thing is, gambling in Japan is illegal. So wait….that whole winning money thing? Right so what you do is buy these little ball bearings, as many as you’d like. Then you put the ball bearings in the machine and they bounce around. If you win you get MORE ball bearings. When you’re done you trade in the ball bearings for a coloured bar. Maybe a red one is worth 500 bearings. So fine. And then, completely coincidentally, right next door to the pachinko parlour is a store that will buy that pretty coloured bar from you for cash! Neat!
At any rate we wanted to know what the draw was and we walked passed a parlour so Kevin said open the door. A few moments earlier he had inoculated is by saying smoking was legal in them and it was loud. Once the door opened the demon was let loose. The sound was ear piercing. It was far higher than any human should be able to tolerate. The fact that the glad doors kept 85% of it inside is a feat of engineering. And the smoke….. The smell of rank cigarettes made our eyes water and gave us what surely was instant COPD. We walked, quickly, from one door to the adjacent door pausing only long enough to see a lady with something like 40 pounds (really!) of ball bearings behind her. She’s was going to get the whole rainbow of coloured bars.
Next up Kevin offered to take us to a tiny (no, really) whiskey bar for a Japanese whiskey tasting. We were game, so we went to this tiny place where we all had to duck to get in the door – even Holly! We were served 3 tastings of excellent Japanese whiskey – who knew! After that, when we were well relaxed, we went to another stand up bar where the staff was allowed to drink as much beer as they wanted. The food was simple battered fried food – lotus, quail eggs and something with pork – not too sure about the last one because by then we had had another beer……
The final place was a larger stand up bar. This time we had a potato liquor and a citrus flavoured drink that was a bit like cleaning products with alcohol. The food however, was amazing. It is too bad we would never find this place again because the food was so good. The two guys behind the bar really took pride in the food they were making – they prepared and plated everything with such attention to detail it was almost a shame to eat it. I also couldn’t tell you what it was, but it was good, and it wasn’t just the Mr. Clean flavoured drink talking.
I mean maybe…. Right now there is sooooo much rain and wind. The rain is pouring in sheets and the wind is howling and driving the rain into the windows making it feel like we’re in a….well….typhoon I suppose.
But we’re in the mountain town of Hakone so this may well be normal for this time of year. The typhoon seems to have lost most of it real destructive force beating the living shit out of South Korea earlier today. If we end up in rowboats going down the mountain I’ll let everyone know.
We love food. Like….looooove food. And any trip we take we make it a priority to book at least one tour with a local to find the best places to eat and the style of food indigenous to the area. And as early as possible into the trip so that we can use their recommendations later on to find things. We’ve done quite a lot of them all over the world trying many types of food…..and this becomes a problem in Japan where there are lots of overlapping styles. But we’ll get to that….
We found Kevin on Viator (Pro tip #1…you know what, for levity the tips are their own post here now) and booked the not-least-expensive tour which included all food and drinks on the trip. Our meeting place was the entrance to a subway in an area that was basically crazy. The streets were enclosed and there were shops spilling out into the street. There were dozens of little off-shoot lanes with restaurants and food of every ilk. Luckily Kevin is a 6-foot-something redhead which, as it happens, is rare thing in Japan. He has lived there for 6-years and had a great grasp of the language.
We started off with some history about the road and it being the longest shopping road in Japan. And on that road was a “really cool crazy thing you’ll never see anywhere but Japan!” Kevin said. “Oh” we responded “You mean the Super Tamade grocery store? We went there last night and this morning”. “Oh” said Kevin with a very audible deflating in his voice. This would be a sign of things to come, however. But he was still nice enough to translate some products in the store (I somehow ended up buying a large pickled daikon radish) for us, show us the difference in which beef comes from which country (the Japanese beef is hugely marbled) and, most importantly, told us what was on the loudspeaker.
The loud speaker, here and in the one we went to previously, was a non-stop barrage of one guy just talking. Endlessly. The same thing over and over until we were about to rip the speakers from the wall and wondered aloud if the employees had a higher than normal incidence of suicide. “SUPATAMADE! SUPATAMADE! SUPATAMADE!”
Next we finally got some actual food! The first place we went to was a stand-up bar. These are quite unique, as we were told, to Japan. Basically it is a place for people (mostly men) to go for a quick drink and a little snack from a massive menu, all while standing up. The walls are lined with wooden plaques showing what is available for food and the price. Unfortunately these are all in Japanese, making it basically impossible (or at the very least culinarily difficult) to order without someone there to translate. Kevin recommended, as a challenge to us, a surprise food! If we were up to it, of course, because it wasn’t for everyone and maybe we didn’t have the guts for it. It was…..”whale!” he exclaimed. And again the disappointment in his voice was palpable when we told him “Ah sure, we had that 4 different ways in Norway”. Before we ordered, though, we asked what kind of whale it was (we ARE still Canadian after all). Kevin was not sure, but sent in the order. As he was about to ask we both heard the guy yell the order for “<something japanese> minke <something else japanese>”. “Oh minke!” we both said to Kevin, “that’s fine, its sustainable”. This was not going to be an easy task for poor Kevin, and we said that we just need to shut up and let the guide “surprise” us from now on.
We also ordered beef tripe in a lovely sauce of miso, and small deep-fried mackerel which are then pickled. All delicious, all things we would absolutely order again. With a nice cold beer and a boisterous crowd around us it felt a lot like a neighbourhood watering hole where everyone knows your name and everyone has a good time.
We asked Kevin to write down the ones we liked in case we ordered them elsewhere. He did so, but mentioned it is much harder to write the symbols than understand or speak them. Which is true, and is the main reason these types of languages are so difficult for English speakers to learn. Because this is honestly not far from the actual conversation we had:
Kevin: That menu item says ‘Lovely rainbow falling from the garden of enchantment that reached the golden sea on the back of the precious dragon’
Tom: Oh wow. And that is…
Kevin: Deep-fried pickled hog intestine filled with fermented sardines
Outside the bar Kevin explained how the beer vending machines work. Now vending machines in Japan are basically everywhere. And by basically, I mean THEY ARE EVERYWHERE. We saw machines where we honestly had to ask “where do they get the power from…..?”. Every block in Osaka had at least 1 but normally 3 or 4 machines. In said machines you can buy basically anything you can stuff in your mouth….soda, water, something called Pocari Sweat, cigarettes, KitKat, chips…..anything. But beer and sake are a special case. You have to be, officially, 20 to buy booze in Japan. So liquor machines are only outside of bars, and they have a camera! Kevin said whether it works is another story (hint: they almost always don’t) and the intention is you look into the camera and someone, somewhere, checks if you look 20 before you can buy. In practice no one cares and teenagers are free to get wasted on 5% beer at $2 a can if they really want to.
Cigarettes too are a special case, in that on the machine there is a button you have to push after putting your money in that says along the lines of “Are you over 20?”. Punch “yes” and the amazing bureaucracy keeping the Japanese youth safe has once again thwarted evil doers.
Next we headed to a pachinko parlour (a circle of hell Dante completely missed), a hotel, a place to watch DVD’s, and a place that called me an egg. But those are tales for another post……
Typhoon Chaba to be exact. Air B’n’B sent us a lovely email letting us know the country is about to be smacked in the face by a huge storm. Not to brag or anything, but technically it got upgraded to a SUPER typhoon, which means its way better than those other typhoons you hear about.
It created very pink skies in Okinawa and we felt a bit of the wind, but nothing major….yet….DUN DUN DUH!
Seriously though we’re fine. As I write this its supposed to most likely pass Osaka where we are to the north and we’re not supposed to get much of it at all.
The Instant Ramen Museum, as is becoming its name, is a huge building. Not Mall Of America-big, but large enough that it really stands out in the mostly residential neighborhood where it stands.
Without the benefit of a logo, it could be just about anything. Its a plain beige-ish stone facade rectangular box with tiny slits for windows. It could be….a roller derby-style fortress where 2 teams enter, but only one leaves, Thunderdome-style. Or the headquarters of a cartel of donut producers, where they have met in secret for decades to collude and keep the price of sprinkles artificially high.
The truth, however, is that the Instant Ramen Museum is actually the holding center for 1/3 of all children currently in Japan, which comes out to, with rounding, eleventy billion. And that is approximately the number that were there when we arrived.
A very nice English speaking lady came over and asked if we wanted to make our own custom Cup Noodles (duh!) and then showed us on a TV the approximate wait time for the upstairs new lab: 40-minutes. Which I suppose is fine……but what struck us was that this activity was SO popular there are TWO “kitchens” running flat-out full-time to let everyone put coloured salt on dried noodles in styrofoam.
The upstairs lab is laid out in 2 lines separated by colouring stations. When you first come in you line up to buy your empty styrofoam cup for ~$4. This had 2 switchbacks, but in typical Japanese effeciency fashion the line moved in maybe 10-minutes and everyone was through.
From here you move to the colouring phase. Sitting at small tables with special markers you design your Cup Noodles cup with whatever you want. I went with the classic dinosaur and bird with mohawk being attacked by a snake while jumping over sushi (based on the classic Norman Rockwell painting), Holly went with….well…bowls of ramen.
After that you move onto the flavour line. In this line there is a nice lady showing you how they get the noodles in the cup (hint: upside down). Its interactive and you get to rotate a giant whell that turns your cup upside down and plops a birdsnest of noodles in, while a very nice Japanese lady repeats the same rote script over and over again with a completely genuine smile through a microphone and speaker like a bank teller
Next your cup (and you) move to the flavourings section! You choose your base (Cup Noodle base for me, Seafood for Holly) and up to 4 flavourings, one of which are edible duck faces, which pretty much scream at you to get them. For the record the flavours we got are:
Cup Noodles base
From there you move over to another lady who packages it for you while talking you through the process over a speaker. She foil seals it, puts it in a bag and puts it through a Easy Bake oven to shrink wrap it down. From there you take it over to another station where you get an enormous bag to fill with air. Seriously. You put the ramen in a bag and then inflate it and add a little red string to carry it around like a giant airbag purse. The whole process was crazy and amazingly fun!
The rest of the museum is really non-existent. Its a wall of old ramen flavours, another full kitchen to make these cup noodles and a couple displays. But clearly this entire building is really just for this activity.
So we left. On the way to the museum we passed a little ramen place with a sign that read “Your happiness of eating this makes us happy” which seemed like an invitation to try our first bowl of ramen and we were not at all disappointed. Flavourful roasted pork, a gorgeous broth and the single most perfectly cooked egg we had ever seen. The place was called Ippudo Ramen and I highly recommend it!
But we had a food tour to get to! So we left there, walked back to the subway and headed to Umeda station to check that out before heading to eat more Osaka fare. But that deserves its own post……
Like any other day, we started by going to the Instant Ramen Museum, as one does. Should be straightforward……walk down to the subway station nearby, grab a train, and off we go. Until you realize that Osaka has something like 3 or 4 competing transit systems, and none of them work together, so you have this interesting thing of trying to decide which train system you’d like to give money to for that day and hoping they go where you want. We chose the subway, because why not (also we didn’t actually understand how much they didn’t like one another yet. Not like in the Sharks vs Jets way. At least not that we saw. Though a rumble between executives of Osaka railway companies would be pretty damn awesome).
So on to the museum! We rode for close to an hour on lovely green velour seats (if you ever wondered where the velour from your grandmother’s couch went – we found it!) and got off to transfer to the other-system-we-didn’t-pay-for-yet at a station called Umeda. Turns out Umeda is an entire district. There are whole maps to just get around this 10 city block area (or thereabouts…..its kind of sprawling). There are tunnels EVERYWHERE. Which is another thing we learned quickly about Osaka. On a map where it shows you have to get off the train and walk for 300m one would naturally suspect, well, time to get out into the rain. One would be wrong. For nearly every step we took between stations was underground and filled with little shops, restaurants and bars. Very few points did we need to go above ground. Its like there is an entire second city lurking below the ground. Presumably there is a third city below that, a a fourth inhabited only by mole-people. This might only be at Umeda, but it was something we would see again on our return trip from the ramen museum, which is where we were going before this tangent….
So we get to the station closest to museum and start the 10- or 15-minute walk to get there. Along the way we talk about how….nice….Japan is. When we were in China I was a fullly-fledged card-carrying freak. I was photographed literally hundreds of times, and the staring and leering from nearly everyone was so ubiquitous, by the 2nd or 3rd day we didn’t even notice it anymore. Even in big cities like Shanghai and Beijing where you could reaosnably assume people had seen white bald people before. Vietnam and Cambodia where similar, though not nearly as bad as China. Vietnam thought Holly was a freak too (China could care less). But here in Japan,….no one cares. Not at all. It is like the city streets of Vancouver where seeing someone from Japan or Malaysia, or a Sikh gentleman or a lady in a hijab are all equally likely and no one makes a fuss. We did get smiles and nods and “Good mornings” (presumably….though it could also be “screw you whitey” but I like to think positive) which was great.
Okay really onto the museum…..in its own post because Holly says this one is too long already.
After 10-ish hours in a plane we landed in Osaka to begin the adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun.
The first thing we noticed, and by “noticed” I mean “got smacked in the face the second the plane door opened” is the humidity. We did not prepare for 700% humidity. While not AS bad as Cambodia, our choice of mostly cotton T-shirts in retrospect, seems like not such a hot (pun intended) idea.
We are staying in an Air B’n’B, which means you are on your own to find the place. So into the maelstrom that is Asian train centers we went. It is a site to behold with a sea of humanity swirling around, staring at multi-coloured lines on a map, pointing feverishly as if to invoke some sort of eureka! moment where the squiggles and names that all sound alike will somehow make sense. In our case it went something like this:
“There! Thats our station! Thats the name! We did it!”
“YES! Great job!” High fives and back slaps all around.
“Oh….theres another train system altogether? And Thats the one we want over there….okay lets go point at the other guys map for a while then”
Eventually we got on the right train and the the right station, then the right direction and finally walked to our room. Which, in this case, is not really an exaggeration. More on that later, we’re off to the Instant Ramen Museum!