Takasaki: The Iowan-Bellybutton of Japan
It was 1:00am. Technically a Thursday morning. My backpack straps were securely fastened into the marked indents on my shoulders. Under the alien-blue lighting of the train station convenience store, I browsed Pocky snacks of every flavor imaginable. Each box was only around $1. I knew then and there that I was in a good place. An out of breath, slightly shrill voice yelled my name from behind. I whipped my head around to see a tiny girl in blue-speckled glasses too big for her slim face, huffing at the glass entrance. Embracing in the middle of the potato chip aisle was the most comforting feeling I’ve had in months.
Greetings from Takasaki, Japan! My saintly host and friend, Angela, who’s doing two years of the JET programme here, describes it as “the Iowa of Japan.” I’ve never been to Iowa, but despite the boring and slow connotations associated with Iowa, I think that “idyllic” is the best word to describe Takasaki, in the summer at least. Angela lives right by the river — a slow moving body of water cupped by twisting green banks with tall, shooting grass. There are always people riding their bikes along the raised sienna paths. Chatty bands of school girls off to cram class, uniformed office workers singing bar songs as they pedal home… it’s a view straight out of an anime.
The first day, Angela let me be her shadow. We followed her JET friends to the mall to set up their phone bills and bank accounts. Later, Angela’s boxy white Honda was delivered to her apartment. Her apartment is very Japanese. In my crude American mind, I want to describe everything in Japan as shaped like a bento box. But it’s true! Even the tatami mats in her room are fitted together like Jenga blocks. I’m very happy to be helping her move into her new home and new life. I’ve seen many glimpses of friends’ post-grad lives over snapchat or skype, but it’s a real treat to live it with them in person. Finished the night with an absolutely stellar bowl of Hokkaido miso ramen and girly chats.
On Friday, we drove up one of the mountains surrounding the eastern edge of Takasaki. This area of Japan is famous for its decadent onsen (hot springs) and I desperately wanted a good soak. I forgot how much I love driving, especially in the countryside. At ikaho onsen (which doubles as a traditional Japanese inn), Angela and I were lucky enough to have the entire women’s onsen room to ourselves. The spring water looked a dark, murky jade and the entire experience felt like sitting naked in a cup of steaming green tea.
That evening, I had katsudon at a family restaurant recommended by Angela’s former host mom, Yoko, who says it’s the best katsudon she’s ever had. Yoko has been all over Japan but has never found katsudon comparable to Kiyosumi’s. Washed down with a bottle of Kirin Beer, the egg-battered pork cutlet definitely hit the spot. If you’re into reading fiction books that explore the healing comfort of great food, I suggest Kitchen by Banana Yakamoto. Katsudon makes an extra special appearance.
Saturday (this) morning, I finally finally finally had the opportunity to do a morning run somewhere that didn’t damage my lungs (I had started to develop a Beijing cough). Japanese people are quite active. May it be jogging, cycling, golfing, soccer practice — there were a fair amount of people up and about outside at 6:30am. Rising early rewards you with a luxuriously long, lazy morning during which Angela and I completed our first vlog. It’s basically fourteen minutes of us eating pudding and chatting nonsense. View at your own peril.
Now, I’m on the Joetsu Shinkansen (bullet train) en-route to Tokyo. Takasaki gave me slowness after almost two months of China mayhem, but I’m pumped to take in Tokyo’s neon lights and crowds. Harajuku, Shibuya, Shimokitazawa and more in 24 hours? I’m definitely down.
Originally published at thewendyway.wordpress.com on August 11, 2015.