“There’s nothing equal to wearing clothes and eating food. Outside this there are neither Buddhas nor Patriarchs.” (Zenrin Kushû)
During our last few days in Japan, our friend, Toshiko, said that she wanted to show us something, a surprise. Not having any clue, we met her near a subway station and followed her to a rather nondescript building, which I don’t think either of us could find again.
I was about to be inducted as novice soba maker.
In Japan, wheat flour is called udon, and so are the noodles made from it. (Udon usually refers to the fat noodles; ramen, to the thin version.) Soba, on the other hand, means buckwheat, and also the flour and noodles made from buckwheat.
We entered a room that had large wooden work benches and a small kitchen in one corner. At each workbench was a big empty bowl, a couple smaller bowls with flour and a huge dowel.
Zen, karate, aikido, iaido and many martial arts from the East, are transmitted from teacher to student in a line of tradition. So also is the art of soba noodles. Soba makers attain levels of achievement awarded to them by the master, much like the colored belts in martial arts.
This class was taught by Soba Master Takashi Ueda, a man who has trained thousands of students including four masters in the central region of Japan. Other men, who were already advanced in the art, joined me that evening.
They unwrapped their custom rolling pins and special noodle-cutting knives, Japanese blades that cost hundreds of dollars. This was a heavy investment in both time and money. Why? Like Robert Pirsig wrote “The Buddha, the Godhead, resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a motorcycle transmission as he does at the top of the mountain, or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha – which is to demean oneself.”
The essence of Zen Buddhism is the mind’s total occupation in the meditation itself. The connection between this kind of meditation and the practice of one particular physical task dates back to the time of Bodhidharma, the Father of Zen. He taught at the Shaolin Monastery in China where he developed focused exercises that would later become the Kung Fu of so many Hollywood movies. I’m pretty sure he didn’t do it for the benefit of Bruce Lee, though.
In soba making, there are many steps, each requiring concentration, craft and art. It’s an understatement to say that it would be a mistake to lose concentration while rapidly slicing the noodles into thin strands with a razor-sharp knife.
Fortunately, the master and the advanced students were quite accepting of my antics and laughter. It’s one thing to concentrate in quietude. It’s quite another thing when someone nearby is being a total clown. I managed to make soba though (barely).
When the noodles were made and the tools were cleaned and put away, Master Takashi cooked the noodles that he made and served them up to us. There is no describing how different fresh, handmade soba noodles taste.
The noodle, the texture, the size, the bite, the color and the flavor are a personal interaction of the grain and the maker. As in art… as in poetry… the maker is in the noodle. So also is the Buddha.
Travel, for us, is all about our interaction with people; not seeing all the tourist attractions that a destination offers. So, the first thing we miss now that we are in Taiwan, are those good friends we made in Japan and with whom we shared a lot of good times.
It took me so long to research Japanese language learning systems to find the one that ’spoke’ to me. I just wanted to communicate on an easy, not even grammatically correct, simple level. But, learning Hiragana, and Katakana was not enough. The language begged me to delve deeper and deeper by introducing culture and tradition. I began learning radicals as a foundation to begin learning the Kanji, which was really exciting, but it diverted me altogether from practicing any conversational language. So my progress was tediously slow.
And now that we’re in Taiwan, I miss being able to ask my friend, Hiroko, all those language questions that she was so skillful at answering during our mutual language exchange.
I really felt welcome each time I entered or left a convenience store, retail shop, restaurant or bar. There was always a greeting chorus by every employee offering “welcome to my store”, “can I help you with something?”or maybe something playful like “welcome strange and funny foreigner to our establishment” or whatever it was they were saying, because I had no idea. I enjoyed hearing their singsong welcome but never knew if it warranted a response from me so I could only pleasantly acknowledge them and smile. I know the greetings were a management directive and not really sincere, but I always imagined them to be.
We dined one evening at a restaurant with our friend Hiromi and she pointed out a button on the wall by our table. She pushed it to summon our server just to ask a question. Then she used it again to ask our server how to get the advertised discount for our meal. She called her again to ask for help loading the app that offers the discount coupon. After getting over our hesitation to use the button, we grew to love it calling for more water or an explanation of what dish was served. The wait staff would come running, actually running to our table at our slightest whim. Tipping is not done in Japan so there was never a promise of extra money for the speedy service delivered always with a smile in Japan. This courteous and attentive service may just be unmatched elsewhere.
I miss the dollar stores where I can buy everything and it all works perfectly as you may expect an item that cost much more to perform. There are Japanese Daiso stores ($1 stores) in Taiwan, but I preferred the Seria 100 yen shops. The Daiso stores carry more utilitarian supplies. The Seria stores had not only the whimsical items with no practical purpose like a toast stamp that makes an imprint of some anime character on a piece of toast, highly specialized gadgets like cute plastic stoppers for laundry poles to prevent hangars from flying off the ends, but also the traditional Japanese items like fans and (empty) bento boxes to pack your kid’s lunch.
The train system in Japan that you can set your watch by does not exist in Taiwan. Japan’s vast and efficient train network connecting every part of the city and its adjacent towns with precision and orderliness is something we may never see anywhere again. Those clean and comfortable trains that posted official signs admonishing riders to behave properly while aboard, were always within short walking distance no matter where we were. They were not inexpensive but the ease of use and convenience made up for the cost.
Sidewalks in Japan are built for pedestrians and bicycles. Some have lane markers so both can share … politely. Drivers in Japan are so careful of others and give people on foot and on bicycles the right of way. Taiwan is not friendly to pedestrians and we decided early on that riding bikes would be impossible. The few sidewalks we have seen have been monopolized by scooters driving or parking on them.
There were so many little hole-in-the-wall bars everywhere in Japan. There was a building with an entire floor sporting almost 50 bars side by side along narrow hallways. Each bar had it’s unique theme and clientele. We have not yet spotted a drinking establishment in Taiwan.
Last but most importantly, I miss the Japanese iconic electronic toilets. I miss the warmed seats, butt and bidet sprays leaving you clean-as-a-whistle, and the pleasant bird songs or classical music masking sounds I may make in the toilet lest I die of shame.
Just when I was feeling my loss most profoundly, we happened upon Dawn Cake, a pastry business with an ice cream parlour and pastry/dessert retail outlet on the main floor and a fabulous restaurant on the second floor. They had Japanese toilets in one of the most posh bathrooms I have visited in a long time, including Japan. We dined at this restaurant, which we highly recommend, and luxuriated in their bathrooms fondly remembering toilets in Japan. Yes, toilets in Japan are what I miss the most and I want one.
It also wasn’t outrageously expensive like the rumors we heard. Perhaps in Tokyo, the cost of living is on the same scale as New York City or Paris, but we stayed in Osaka the entire time. (Partly, the reason for this was the high price of the long distance trains. But also, Osaka was such an awesome choice of cities that we were constantly entertained and busy without leaving the region.)
We discovered that it was possible to live pretty well for a reasonable cost. This article is a collection of tips, both practical and money-saving.
Cell Phone and WiFi
Unlike so many places in the world, where you can go into a store on almost any block and buy a pre-paid SIM card, it can’t be done in Japan. The cell phone companies in Japan have universally decided not to support tourists and short term visitors.
Worse, free wifi is not prevalent like it is in North America. Sure, it may be free in Starbucks and some other coffee shops, but there’s a Catch-22. You have to sign up for this free wifi on the Internet, which, of course, you can’t do because you don’t have wifi. Duh. And even if you did figure that out, you’d only get a limited amount of Internet each day and then they cut you off.
Somehow, we labored under the misconception that Japan, which brought us so much technology and electronics, would be flush with Internet beyond our wildest dreams. The reality: in a city of 3 million people, there are probably only four or five places where you can stand and get open wifi. Combined with no SIM card, your smart phone is suddenly the village idiot.
The important point here is that if you want to be connected, you better plan for it ahead of time. We understand that you can get a pre-paid SIM card at the airport, but we arrived in Osaka cruise port so we don’t know where, or how much it costs.
We found this company, DID Global, and rented a mobile wifi cube for about $60/month. The cube has 3G connectivity and allows up to 5 device connections. That was enough for our phones and tablets. We didn’t bother with a cell phone. Instead, we used the wifi and LINE application which gave us free messages and phone calls to LINE users. LINE is one of the popular messaging systems in Asia and we could contact nearly everyone we met.
For other ways to stay connected, check our links page under Japan or Travel Equipment.There are some companies that will deliver a mobile cube to your hotel and provide a return shipping envelope.
One of the big advantages of our slow traveling style is that we can rent an apartment for 3 months for a good deal less than we would spend in a hotel.
We tried AirBnB for a one-week booking to give us time to find an apartment, but that turned out to be a disaster. Lately, we’ve noticed more and more people are trying to take advantage of tourists by listing their dumps that no locals would rent for hotel prices.
If you do use AirBnB, make sure you read all the reviews. We learned that when there is a review that says the host cancelled the stay, it may mean that a guest saw the place and ran, and asked AirBnB for their money back. That’s how we were identified and since we were the ones to cancel the reservation, we were prohibited from leaving a review on the site to warn others about the highly misleading listing.
One huge advantage of AirBnB is that they were pretty accommodating. In our Japan travesty, they refunded our money, offered to pay for a hotel for three nights for up to $250/night and gave us a future stay credit. (But they didn’t offer to have the unscrupulous host taken our and shot.) All things considered, it’s still pretty safe to book with AirBnB anyway.
Another thing that you can do with AirBnB is make an offer to the host. We have often asked for, and received, a lower price for a multi-day stay.
We haven’t used this resource yet, but outside of the western hemisphere, it’s possible to find very cozy and comfortable private rooms at hostels. Some of these have en suite bathrooms. Some hostels in Asia are really converted hotels.
(Disclaimer: I refuse to budget our alcohol and coffee consumption!) First, let me unequivocally recommend drinking sake instead of grape wine in Japan. Or, as they call it, “o sake” where the o is a sign of respect.
We learned that the selection of sake in North America is like Eleanor Rigby’s pitiful gathering of the broken, dirty rice from the floor where a wedding has been. We were fortunate enough to have arrived in Osaka just a few weeks before a big sake tasting festival. Naturally, we attended and became converts.
Previously, we had no idea about the extant of flavor profiles that sake could achieve. There are different types of sake depending on how much of the rice husk is removed and the method of brewing. Want to learn a little more about sake? Click here for eSake.com’s short course.
Good sake is not cheap. You can buy a decent bottle for about the same as a decent of wine. Maybe $20 give or take $10 in either direction. There are, of course, much more expensive sakes, but we didn’t try them. After a certain point, my palate reaches a diminishing returns plateau with respect to my wallet.
Naturally, in a restaurant, that price will double. I recommend buying it in a liquor store and drinking at home to save money. If the liquor store has a sake sommelier (yes, I said sake sommelier), be sure to ask the best way to enjoy it. Some sakes are better chilled; some, room temperature; some, slightly warmed.
Anyway, in a restaurant, one should not order sake with sushi. A more economical, er, proper choice is a cold, draft beer. A glass of Asahi draft is usually $3-5 and tastes significantly better than that American Pissweiser, I mean, Budweiser.
… and Dining
Forget about eating fresh fruit and vegetables in Japan. We saw $50 watermelons. I kid you not. When we lived in Florida, friends would beg you to take some mangos off their tree. In Japan? How about paying $35 for a mango? Um, no thank you.
To be honest, we didn’t try to keep our food expense under a particular budget. On average, we spent a total of about $35-$40/day including restaurants, bars, train tickets, fresh-roasted coffee and quality sake purchases. We ate out often enough, and even tried the Kobe beef a couple times which ran up a $50-$90 bill for the two of us. For the most part, you can have a really good lunch or dinner for $7-$12 per person. Economical, and more than satisfying, is a bowl of ramen. You can check the Ramen Database using the Chrome browser with the translator plugin.
We had an apartment with a little kitchen and a rice cooker. It’s not too expensive to feed yourself here if you shop at the grocery store and cook. With a few exceptions, fresh vegetables and fruit were budget breakers, but the selection of mushrooms and tofu is amazing. This is a good place to be a vegetarian. For almost all our inside meals, we had brown rice with stir-fried mushrooms and other assorted veggies.
Coincidentally, we also had a gyoza (dumpling) factory right down the street. Usually, we kept a bag of dumplings in the freezer that we could pan fry quickly when we were hungry.
Half Price Sushi
Osaka is the birth place of conveyor belt sushi restaurants. They’re cheap by Japan standards, about $1 for a piece of very mediocre sushi. If you plan to have a meal of the good stuff served by human staff, you can expect to run up a bill from $15 to, well, probably no upper limit.
The secret here is to enjoy your sushi at the fish market. In the heart of Osaka, there’s the Kuromon Ichiba, a traditional market which also has many already prepared foods to try. We found one fish peddler that had a table in the back of the shop where you could enjoy your fresh sashimi. How fresh? How about watching them cut it off the side of the tuna? Is that fresh enough?
They also make sushi boxes that they sell in the front of the store along with the live octopus, fish, oysters and the rest. For about $10, you can get a box with 5 to 8 really nice pieces of sushi or sashimi. They don’t skimp on the fish, so by Osaka standards, it’s a pretty good deal even at retail because of the quality.
Here’s the best part: If you go at 4:30, all the sushi and sashimi boxes they haven’t sold for the day are half-price. You get sushi for about the same or less than the conveyor belt places and the fish is ten times better!
We’ve heard that the grocery stores and almost all the other markets, about a half-hour before they close, discount the goods that won’t be fresh the next day. We don’t have any personal experience with that, except maybe the time that the meat counter guy took 70% off the ingredients for shabu-shabu when Deena was buying things for it around 7:00pm. I still say it was the low cut dress she was wearing!