Friday, November 30, 2012

Eating in Japanese restaurants: Some unexpected quirks

Japanese restaurants are different from Western ones in ways beyond the menu items. We've actually become inured to this sort of difference, but while traveling with Justin's parents, we noticed them through fresh eyes. These are the sort of things which would never make a travel guidebook but which would jerk you out of a novel set here (I can't read the word "whiskey" in novels set in Scotland anymore.)

- Japanese restaurants all have "party of one" seating areas, mostly banquettes. It is normal to go to a restaurant alone. Some places have more of this seating than of seating for groups.
- If you do go to a restaurant with other people, you will still only get one menu. No one can explain this to me.
- Some menus are written and posted on the restaurant wall, diner-style. Those are the hardest for foreigners because they are all text, without pictures, although sometimes they write the spicy dishes in red letters.
- All meals are served with wet towels, either the cheap plastic packaged kind or, in more upscale places, heated white washcloths.
- Japanese chopsticks will always be wood. The Koreans use metal and the Chinese usually use plastic in restaurant settings. Chinese chopsticks are the longest, maybe because of the tendency to eat from shared plates at a distance. Japanese chopsticks are shortest. Korean chopsticks are heaviest.
- You can still smoke in restaurants here. The scent of french-fry grease and cigarette smoke always takes me back to the McDonald's of my childhood.
- Many restaurants set out Kleenex boxes for use in place of napkins.
- At some restaurants, especially ramen restaurants, you might buy meal tickets from a vending machine instead of paying cash to a person. You turn the ticket in to the server and they bring you the food shown on the ticket.
- Some restaurants, particularly those on the ground floors of large buildings, do not have their own bathrooms. To go to the bathroom, you have to exit the restaurant (which is outdoors, in the cold) and walk around to the bathroom, which is typically shared with other restaurants. Often these are squat toilets. THE HORROR.
- Fast-food restaurants like Lotteria and McDonald's have sinks out in the main area, near the order counter, so you can wash your hands without going into the bathroom. Actually, this is brilliant.
- When you discard your tray at a fast-food restaurant, you have to sort your trash first. There is a separate receptacle for the leftover ice in your soda cup.
- Water cups are teeny tiny - no taller than your hand. I noticed this in Europe, too. I don't know why Americans drink so much more than other people. I would die of dehydration drinking the way they do in Asia and Europe.
- Water is often "セルプ”, or "self-service," from coolers in a corner of the restaurant. This makes the teeny-tiny cups even more annoying, since you have to get up and walk across the restaurant to refill them. Sometimes they have pitchers, though, which helps.
- No sales tax, and no tipping. If you try to leave even a penny behind, they will come out in the street to find you and give it back.
- If you get to a chain restaurant at opening time, you might witness the staff's pump-up ritual. They gather outside the restaurant and cheer a few times before going in and starting work. They do this at major retailers, too.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kyushu Road Trip, Day 2: Hot Springs, Volcanoes, and Fields of Grain

Read about the first day of our Kyushu Road Trip(s) here.

A few weeks ago, we spent back-to-back weekends driving through the volcanic highlands of inland Kyushu. Day one took us through Kokonoe to some spectacular waterfalls, then up into the Kuju Plateau.

On the second day of each road trip, we headed out after a bath or two followed by a hearty onsen breakfast. From Kuju, the road took us across an odd, rolling grassland unlike anything one would ever expect to see in Japan. Horses, big torii gates marking the entrances to a number of ranches, and even a roadside hot-dog stand flying a giant American flag.

The grassland ends abruptly about 40 minutes south of Kuju, at a sheer drop into the Aso caldera.

You really have to see Aso to believe it. The mountains in the distance in those shots above used to be the southern slopes of an enormous stratovolcano roughly the size of Mt. Fuji. We're standing on the remnants of the southern slopes, looking down into the enormous crater formed when the whole thing blew in a series of major eruptions ending about 90,000 years ago, the largest of which covered the entire island of Kyushu with a layer of volcanic ash. 

The light wasn't cooperating for some of our shots, so I've pulled a few images from Wikipedia below:
That's what the northern wall looks like from about 2/3 of the way down.
A cinder cone called Komezuka, on the northern flank of the main peak, with the northern wall of the caldera in the distance.
The result is a low, sheltered, and well-watered valley with rich volcanic soil: some of the most fertile farmland in all of Japan. Of course, that geography cuts both ways, as the area is prone to floods like those that ravaged the area earlier this year. The damage was still evident in a number of scoured creek beds and washouts along the road.

While Aso town, in the heart of the crater, is a cute little burgh with a pretty Shinto shrine . . .

. . . the main attraction in Aso is Naka-dake (literally, "central peak"), site of the area's last active volcanic crater. An access road runs right to the top, winding up the sprawling slopes and their expanse of grassy pastures.

By the time you get to the top, you're pretty sure you're in a war zone. On Mars.

The place is dotted with bunkers to protect visitors in the event of an eruption, and a constant warning message plays over the loudspeaker about the dangers of volcanic gas.
You can't see it, but the light's blue, which is good.

And the crater itself is simply bizarre: a gaping pit in the mountainside, spewing smoke, with a brilliant blue-green lake steaming at the bottom. Pretty much impossible to capture in pictures, so I tried to get some video as well. (E-mail reader: click through to the blog to watch the clip! Provided it's working - doesn't look so good in preview . . .)

Crater don't play by your rules.

Hint: It's good that the wind sock is pointing that way.

A close-up of the crater wall. Anyone else thinking Sarlaac?
The dormant craters next door to the main show were also pretty cool: a rugged, barren landscape where just a few shrubs have begun to cling to life.

And finally, looking downhill, before the drive back to Fukuoka.