Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | Notes from Japan
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Notes from Japan

Post / Gil Asakawa
Real sushi, from the source: a bento box at a sushi restaurant in Sapporo.

I’m in the middle of a two-week trip to Japan, and it’s been a fascinating visit.

I was born here in Tokyo (an Army brat — my dad, a Nisei from Hawaii, was stationed here and met my mom during the Korean war) and moved to the states when I was 8. But as an adult, I’ve only been in Japan twice — in 1994 and 1995. This time it’s for a family trip, and I’m traveling with my mom.

Here are some observations:

It’s been a pain in the butt to find Internet access. In Sapporo, a big city, the hotel staff looked at me like I had five heads when I asked if there was Internet access in the room. One man finally said there’s dialup. I rolled my eyes. I asked if they knew of any Internet cafes nearby, and I got the ol’ five heads look again.

Amazingly, a few days later in the tiny fishing town of Nemuro (my mom’s hometown), the East Harbor Hotel near the train station not only offers Internet access, it’s broadband cable access, and for a mere 200 yen a day — that’s less than $2 per day, cheaper than that company that offers WiFi at Starbucks for $10 a day or whatever the price is. By the way, I asked at a Starbucks in Sapporo if they had Internet access and the girl at the counter gave that look again.

Post / Gil Asakawa
This is no ordinary toilet seat.

Technology is a funny thing in Japan — they’re ahead of the U.S. in some ways, like cell phones. But not with Internet.

However, they’re way ahead on bathroom tech: I’ve had the pleasure of having a heated toilet seat in my tiny hotel room’s tiny bathroom, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to come home to that cold seat in Colorado anymore. Not only is it heated, it cleans you — back and front (if you’re a woman). I tried the “back cleaning” and found it, well… weird. But maybe I can get used to it. I certainly like the heated seat. Many state-of-the-art Japanese homes are equipped with these fancy toilet seats.

Post / Gil Asakawa
The instructions luckily are also provided in English.

The women here don’t have black hair anymore. I think 90 percent or more now dye their hair a reddish brown. Some of the men (young men, anyway) bleach their hair and some dye their hair brown. But almost all the women seem to prefer the reddish brown, and it’s not just girls but older women too.

The food is to die for — especially if you love seafood. In fact, I’ve had so much fish and other stuff from the ocean in the past week that my skin’s starting to smell fishy. But the food’s been undeniably amazing.

Post / Gil Asakawa
Don’t ask what it is, just eat it. This was the spread at a banquet for almost 30 people, given after a memorial service.

The highlight so far has been a special catered meal at a ryokan, or inn, after the memorial service for the one-year-anniversary of my grandmother’s death. It had small servings of over a dozen delicacies, many of which not even my mother — who grew up with this stuff — could identify. I didn’t ask after a while, I just ate everything put in front of me, even if some of it had some squishy, yucky textures.

Post / Gil Asakawa
Parking downtown would be a snap in something this size….

There are some remarkably tiny cars here. Many of the brands are familiar: Honda, Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Mazda. But the models vary wildly from their American brethren. Many are small to the point that they look like toys. But in a country where space is at a premium and parking spots are especially tight, these small, sub-subcompacts seem right. I love what I’ve come to call the mini-minivans. They’re just so cute!

The Japanese obsession with hygiene sends decidedly mixed messages. They hand out packs of facial tissue on the sidewalk to passersby, and people with colds are polite en0ugh to wear face masks so others won’t get sick. But most public bathrooms don’t have paper towels or any way to dry your hands (some now have blow driers, which is an improvement), and some public bathrooms don’t have doors, so you can walk by and see the men lined up at urinals doing their thing.

Post / Gil Asakawa
Your neighbors will know if you don’t pick up.

There are signs for picking up dog poop that don’t order people to do it, they suggest politely that it might be nice if they do it, and mention that if they don’t pick up their dog’s poop, others will be watching and know. Shame is still a strong motivator in Japan.

I found musical kindred spirits in unexpected places in Nemuro, the easternmost town in Hokkaido, the northernmost state of Japan.

Post / Gil Asakawa
John, Paul, George, Ringo… and Shohei.

My cousin, Masahito Mori, introduced me to his childhood friend, Shohei Kotaki, a rabid Beatles fan in his late 30s, in Dorian, the cool little coffee shop that Kotaki owns. He brought out a custom-built replica he had made, of the Rickenbacker electric guitar that John Lennon played in the early days of the Beatles. He also proudly displayed a cover of Lennon’s “Imagine” album that he had Yoko Ono autograph for him. In the window of the empty shop next door, he placed a replica of a Ludwig drum set with the Beatles logo on the bass drum, and the cover of the Beatles’ 1964 “Something New” album.

His coffee shop played good music, too. I recognized the sound and asked him if it was Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, a soul group from the ’60s, and he seemed delighted that I knew the music.

Post / Gil Asakawa
The Satin Doll would fit right in if it were in New York’s Greenwich Village.

Across town near our hotel, I was taken one night after dinner with my uncle Kazuya and aunt Eiko to the Satin Doll, a “jazz and coffee” bar owned by Kazuya Yachida. One wall of his tiny establishment was lined with shelves jammed with jazz albums organized by categories such as “vocals,” “saxophone” and “guitar.” The music played on his sound system, though, he pointed out, was from a CD. A cool regular customer sat at the bar, reading a magazine and chiming in when I asked questions about the local jazz scene. I guess Nemuro is known as a hotbed of Japanese jazz. Who’d a thunk it? Maybe it’s because hot jazz is perfect for such a cold place.

Speaking of cold, Nemuro is one of the last places in Japan every year where the cherry blossoms bloom. This year, they seem to be blooming especially late, since it’s the end of May and the trees are just now blushing.

Gil Asakawa is away from home until June 6 or sometime thereabouts. Once he gets to Tokyo, he’s not sure he’ll have any Internet access again.