The early morning sun bounced off the Pacific Ocean and into my eyes as our plane angled toward a sprinkle of land below. Off the overnight flight on a few hours of sleep and still sticky with sweat from small town Malaysia I wandered toward the nearest park for a nap. Waking up a bit later under a cherry blossom tree to tourists, selfie sticks and smartphones on all sides, I knew I had made it to Japan.
This place was something else. The society just worked. There was no trash, no violence, no commotions about anything. To do any wrong in this world would not just be illegal it would be shameful, a personal embarrassment- far worse. My friend told me he couldn't remember the last time he heard of a crime being committed here and after my first day I felt the whole idea of police officers, trash cans and car horns was unnecessary because there was just zero signs of crime, no trash and no one dared to honk. There was this serenity and calmness and mutual respect for others that I would expect in a village of two hundred but not in a city of 13 million.
Perfect public transit, bullet trains every fifteen minutes, even the toilet seats were automated and opened up as you walked in. Good schools and nice people, jobs you started at twenty-three and kept for life. Expats I met warned me to be careful because life here was simple and easy if you didn't watch out you may never leave, and it only took a few seconds to see why. It was urban Zen in "the quietest big city" around.
I had last talked to Yohay Wakabayashi when we played each other during my freshman year squash season seven years ago. When a mutual friend made the connection that I was playing in Malaysia it took just a couple hours for Yohay set out to draft up a week of squash training and traveling around Japan. At the same time there were two different business school spring break trips coming through Tokyo, including one with my Santa Barbara neighbor/Dartmouth classmate/Boston neighbor Carly in it, who let us play the part of grad student and join the party. At the bar during one event, a UCLA business school student tells me his plan to get into the tech world, why he doesn't think management consulting is all it's cracked up to be, and then asks about my background. I try to explain my finance to squash story to a questioning pair of eyes. A few seconds in he looks very confused. "So what are you trying to do?" Good question, I told him.
As a kid I imagined you could wander around Japan eating sushi everywhere, find fresh fish all over, chicken teriyaki any time, any place. And that's just about how it felt. For a few dollars at a noodle stand you could get udon or soba noodles that for the best soups you've ever had, the price of fast food you could eat you grilled eel and raw tuna and marinated sea urchin until you were stuffed, even with pocket change you could stop by the 7-Eleven for a ball of rice and a chicken yakatori skewer and leave happy.
Yohay took me to a dinner spot with no menus and a line out the door- one pork dish offered, cooked one way for 73 years and counting. At the train station I fed a machine a few dollars, pressed a button and walked through a door. Waiting for me was the best bowl of udon noodles I'd ever had, to be eaten in minutes while standing up, bumping elbows other soup slurping commuters- elderly Japanese businessmen dressed in suits, here for lunch as they probably have been every day for years. On my last morning Yohay and I stood in a line around a city block to try the best yakaudin (egg with rice and meat) around. For whatever reason the place is open from only 11:15 AM to 1 PM, with only three options for ordering: egg and rice with chicken, beef or both. Apparently this was it's 255th year of operations- funny to think that around the time George Washington was leading his troops into battle against the Brits, over in Tokyo friends and families were catching up on life over a hearty bowl of fabulous rice and eggs sometime between 11:15 AM and 1 PM.
I trained at the Tokyo American Club then traveled to Kyoto to play a top former Japanese national team player, crashing on the futon of Yohay's friend Chris, who I had never met but generously offered up his futon anyway for the week. I had met a group of traveling expats while in Tokyo who were now also in Kyoto so we combined sightseeing plans. It was an absurd scene: five girls - Yana, a Russian studying in Tokyo, Yana's South African-German college roomate visiting from Munich, Yana's British-Mexican classmate in Tokyo, that classmates' other best friend visiting from Mexico City, a kindergarten teacher from Tijiuana now working at a school in Japan, and me. We made a dream team led by our fearless, no nonsense tour guide Yana, who grew up in mountains near Siberia and passionately insists the -120 degree winters there aren't nearly as cold as it sounds.
Early morning metro rides to temples, afternoons eating our way through local markets, evenings riding the bus back into town with the Mexicans and me in the way back, trying our best to jam to Enrique Inglasias on our adjoining phone speakers before being rejected by a heavy Japanese scolding filled with disappointment from the elderly bus driver. In our last night we met up with Chris around a table in a one room diner that let us play Enrique uninterrupted as we dove into edamame, danced salsa and drank sake, shared our different lives and similar hopes for what we want out of them, toasted to what my buddy from home calls "the power of loose ties" that brought us to this diner table in Kyoto and laughed about how random and awesome life can be when you just go with it.
My next and final stop on the Asia swing was in South Korea for a couple days before flying out. After some initial plans fell through, my college buddy Matt pulled out some heroics and introduced me to Sunho and KJ right before I arrived. Sunho gave me a taste for Seoul nightlife an hour after arriving on Saturday night and KJ picked me up for brunch Sunday morning.
She took me to a DIY sushi joint at the be of an artsy corner of hip new shops and food stalls featuring not one but two grilled cheese stands, a juice bar, and a store that just sold organic honey. It was Seoul's best West Village impersonation and it was pretty spot on. All this a few hundred feet from a massive US military base and a couple hours from the border with North Korea. I asked if there was worries about violence breaking out and was assured that "North Korea knows they'll be done if they drop their bomb." We went back to rolling our sushi.
Brunch turned into a walk through the street food stands and stalls of young artists, a wander through the imperial palace and past women in the old town making and selling their best Korean rice noodles from fifty years of practice. Along the way we tried those noodles (duh) and a salted caramel milkshake, brown sugar-crusted pancakes and hot bread puffs filled red bean paste, mochi dipped in raw honey washed down with sweet ginger tea and later, as the last of the market closed, a few sticky pork dumplings from the late night dumpling man.
As dusk set in and the sun disappeared we kept walking, caught a taxi out of the old town and walked some more, up to a road in the hills on the edge of Seoul. We arrived at a set of gates marking the entrance to a small mountain overlooking the city that I was told Korean Buddhists view as sacred land. And so KJ gave me a few coins and we dropped them at the gates as tribute to the spirits and began the hike, tiptoeing past praying shamans around one turn and chanting Buddhists around the next, the only noises coming from the prayers and chants that asked for forgiveness and sought solace in the otherwise quiet black of Sunday night. A few more coins dropped at the gate as we left the mountain, closing out the last few hours of my time in South Korea and my stop through Asia.