Home to one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is a dream for snorkelers and divers alike. Below you can find some pictures of the incredible marine life we spotted while snorkeling off the island of Batanta.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
we’ve been out
for an hour.
We push up
one more look.
Gear back in place,
we duck under.
Is my mask fogged?
A parade of parrot
fish stretches across
the reef’s drop-off, crunching coral.
They weave in and out
of one another, grazing,
creating clouds of sand that drift
up to shore creating
with swaying palms and birdsong.
We gaze at the school, mesmerized
by their elephantine mass, while
their colorful cousins
the size of our
The stampede swims out to the depths
as we turn to swim inland.
If you’re wondering how to get to paradise, you should know that getting there is not quite as easy as being there. For us, the process was as follows:
Schedule a doctor’s appointment to get malaria medication and begin taking it several days prior to the trip
If you’re leaving in winter, are far away from an airport and trying to take as little as possible with you to the tropical destination (as we were), stave off frost bite as you spend an entire day commuting to the airport in freezing temperatures wearing nothing but jeans and a light sweater
Board a plane for Indonesia
Spend a week or two traveling around the country (optional, but recommended)
Take a red eye flight to Sorong after spending the night on an airport bench under the glow of a television screen airing coverage of the CrossFit Games
Arrive in Sorong and haggle with a taxi driver to take you to the ferry dock
Buy ferry tickets and board the cramped, liberally air-conditioned cabin for Waisai
Shiver to stay warm for the hour-long ride all the while listening to and watching the offensively bad Indonesian pop music videos on the cabin’s TV
Arrive in Waisai and wait in line for an hour to pay $70 for a permit to enter said paradise
Take an hour-long motorboat ride across choppy waters with no shaded protection from the sun overhead
Arrive in paradise
Are there more convenient routes to take there? Probably, but this was the one available to us and, as we would quickly find, the hassle of getting to paradise is a worthwhile price to pay.
While the collective idea of paradise, uninhabited beaches on remote islands void of responsibility and stress, has many representatives around the world, ours was located in Batanta, one of the four islands the make up Raja Ampat, or four kings, a Papuan archipelago lying at the easternmost edge of Indonesia.
For many visitors to Raja Ampat, accommodation comes in the form of a homestay, which usually consists of one to several bungalows lying on the beach or overtop the ocean itself, most of which are owned and operated by locals. Choosing to go the traditional route, we stayed at Yenaduak Homestay, which was run by a man named Sam and consisted of four bungalows that lied within ten yards of the ocean. Having seen pictures of similar scenes on postcards and in magazines for most of our life and assuming them to be unattainable, we were surprised at times to find ourselves actually staying in such a place.
The thatched bungalow consisted of a bed, one small table and a bathroom with a seatless toilet that also functioned as a sink. To flush, we would have to use a ladle to wash the toilet’s contents through its pipes. The ladle also served as our shower and, since the color of the ground water that filled it looked murkier than the contents of the toilet bowl at most times, we made the easy decision to forego showers for our week’s stay.
While far removed from anyone’s idea of luxury, we found the bungalow to be perfect, an idea furthered by its other feature, a front porch equipped with a hammock and two chairs that would bear the brunt of our lethargy during the lazy mornings and afternoons that are an inevitable byproduct of being on a remote island with no internet connection or phone signal.
The paradisiacal setting wasn’t the only reason people, us included, travel to the islands of Raja Ampat though for, as serene as the above water setting might be, what lies under it can’t be seen anywhere else on Earth. Home to 75% of the world’s coral species and over 1,500 different species of fish, the underwater world of Raja Ampat is one of the richest biodiverse ecosystems anywhere on Earth. Being lovers of snorkeling and aware that finding beautiful and intact coral reefs will be increasingly more difficult in the future we were eager to visit what many snorkelers and divers call the best place in the world for both.
So, with plenty to keep us busy below the ocean and plenty of lazy pursuits lying above it, our time on the island, while limited, was always well spent. A typical day went as follows:
Occasionally we would break from routine to explore the reaches of the shore:
Apart from exploring the immediate surroundings of our homestay, we would also go on a few of the excellent tours that Sam offered guests. The first was to see Wilson’s bird-of-paradise. Never having gone bird watching before, we had a naive pie-in-the-sky picture in our minds of what it would be: the now laughable image of casually strolling through the jungle while birds of all colors and sizes swooped overhead and perched themselves on nearby branches for our enjoyment. Our first indication that it would not be so easy was when Sam told us that we would be leaving for the tour at 3:30 the next morning so that we could get to the lookout in the cover of dark without the birds seeing us.
After waking up at 3:00, having considerable debate about which clothes to wear, and boarding the boat which nearly tipped over a couple of times as everyone got situated, we were on our way. It was slow goings at first as we had to maneuver around the coral reef that boxed the bungalows in to the island. One thing we really liked about Sam and his family was that they always took precautionary measures to make sure that the boat and motor weren’t running over the reef and damaging it. In the pre-dawn darkness, this meant pulling up the motor, using a flashlight to see where the coral was, and then using a long stick placed where the coral wasn’t to push the boat out to sea. Once the reef dropped off, Sam put down the motor and sped away.
With nothing much to look at other than the faint outlines of islands standing against the nighttime sky, our attention turned to the water below, whose unwavering blackness was interrupted by the fluorescent glow of tiny jellyfish which speckled the water. There are many times when the ocean emulates the sky above it, but this was the first time we had experienced it doing so at night, the hundreds of jellyfish illuminating the black water much in the same way the stars do the sky.
As the world brightened, the glow of the jellyfish faded and our attention shifted to the scenery above water. Surrounding us were a handful of islands which sat sleepily behind clouds of mist that were much more vigorous in their early morning pursuits as they hurriedly pushed past the islands in route to blending into the overcast sky above. On the shores of one of these islands our boat would finally slow to a creeping pace as we floated inland, past groves of trees that marked the fringes of the island’s reach into the ocean. The trees, whose exposed and gnarled roots clawed menacingly out of sight into the water below, created an eerie setting when paired with the gloominess of pre-dawn.
As our boat approached a mound of gloppy mud that marked the inner-island’s shore, we emphatically disembarked and began a mad march through the jungle in a race against the sunrise. As we traipsed through swampy patches of earth and pushed through fields of reeds that stretched up to our waists, we were thankful that our wardrobe choice earlier in the morning included hiking boots and long sleeves, both of which we deemed essential totraverse the dark and wet jungle. Our adventurous spirits were put to shame though as we looked ahead to Sam who was walking barefoot over the broken twigs and jagged rocks scattered about the ground and wearing nothing more than a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, which he would later remove. In the Darwinian image of survival, Sam was most definitely the fittest.
The end of our trek was marked by a climb up a steep and muddy hill where we used trees and vines to pull ourselves up to the lookout – a collection of tattered boards lying behind an equally tattered screen meant to keep us hidden from the elusive bird of paradise. As we climbed onto the wet and muddy boards, a couple of which snapped in two while walking across them, Sam gave us some leaves to sit on while we waited for the bird, which was far from a guarantee. Luckily for us, Sam was quite experienced at eliciting the presence of the bird which he did by the almost comically simplistic task of tossing a couple of wet, brown leaves onto the wet, brown earth in front of the screen. Wondering if a trick had been played on us at first, we were quickly applauding the technique as the cartoonishly colorful bird swooped down and began clearing the leaves away. The male birds, as it turns out, are known for setting up their own display courts on the jungle floor where they perform dances for potential suitors. As a dirty court could spell doom for a bird’s chances at securing a mate, they work tirelessly to keep them clear of debris which explained the irritation and immediate rebuttal of Sam’s having made a mess in this particular bird’s court.
Despite our close proximity to the court, the bird still managed to prove elusive as our line of vision was often hindered or blocked entirely by the screen in front of us. Still though, we luckily managed to get a couple of photos of the brilliant bird which we were surprised to find out later only existed on this and one other island in Raja Ampat and was quite rare to see in the wild.
Before going back to our homestay, Sam stopped off at another point on the island to show us a waterfall.
Apart from seeing Wilson’s bird-of-paradise and the waterfall, Sam would also take us to swim with manta rays and go on another, less fruitful, hornbill watching tour. Through our sporadic conversations with him over the course of the week, we learned that he originally worked in a mine with his brother. After the mine collapsed one day, killing his brother, Sam’s dad convinced him to take a safer job working at a resort. While sweeping leaves and picking up plastic that had washed ashore day after day, Sam would hang English words from trees and memorize them as he went back and forth clearing debris off the beach. Eventually, once he had an adequate level of English, he decided to open his own homestay which had expanded from one bungalow to four at the time of our staying there. As more people become aware of one of the last paradises on Earth, we hope that it can remain a paradise, where visitors support locals and everyone recognizes and respects the incredible wildlife that exists there.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
Musings from an Amateur Ornithologist II
Hidden between trees
in the shadowy dawn
rustles a millipede,
gliding over dry leaves,
serpentine, but for his baleen legs
swinging in tandem.
In the canopy,
a regal song rings out,
piercing the morning air
with its vibrato.
holding court in paradise,
flutters from branch to branch
dancing for us onlookers,
aware, yet determined to remain aloof.
A flash of red,
a glint of blue,
swooping to the ground,
then flying off to the latticework above,
leaving us awestruck,
reflecting on the privilege
of being granted an audience.
the thousand-legged jester
continues his crawl
across the forest floor.
Cultural relics are fragile things. Even the most formidable ones, the temples and palaces and castles of the world, were most likely at one point or another in a state of disrepair; crumbling edifices robbed of their allure and lying on the brink of irrelevance. Nowhere was this fragility more evident than in Yogyakarta, the cultural heart of the Indonesian island of Java. Lying just outside its city limits is Borobudur, the largest Buddhist temple in world which, barely over a century ago, was buried under the jungle, vines and roots being the only things roaming its once revered corridors. Despite its past troubles though, Borobudur, and the other tangible aspects of our history and culture, are mostly restored now and kept up meticulously in the spirit of the modern tourism industry.
Inside the city limits of Jogja, the colloquial name for the city, where the more intangible aspects of the island’s culture – music, art and tradition – resided, a different story was playing out. For, while the maintenance of temples and the like rely on the services of bountiful and steady professions like construction workers and engineers, the arts require a much more specialized and often unrewarded profession, the artisan, to maintain their upkeep. As we experienced the making of the region’s famous shadow puppet and batik, a traditional style of clothing, and took in musical performances and puppet shows, we couldn’t help but notice that all of their purveyors were middle-aged or beyond. While we thoroughly enjoyed our experiences with the ancient art forms, we wondered what would happen to them within generations. Like languages without anyone left to speak them, would they simply just disappear?
To get around the city, we would use another cultural relic, this one unwavering in the face of time: public transportation. In Jogja, this came in the form of the endearing becak, a bicycle-powered rickshaw so omnipresent on the streets of the city that they could be found simply by opening one’s eyes and looking in any direction. For us, we didn’t even have to step foot outside of our hotel to spot one as two were parked just outside its front door.
Inside one of the becak’s colorful carriages, under the shade of a tattered awning hanging overhead, sat a gangly man lazily rifling through a newspaper. As we approached him to inquire about taking us around the city, he seemed almost hesitant to oblige, not wanting to abandon his relative comfort to peddle two strangers around the sweltering streets of the city. Over the course of the next several days, as he took us from site to site around Jogja, we would learn his name, Adi, as well as other various tidbits about his life and personality. For example, he was a father of two, had learned his impressive level of English simply by listening to client’s conversations and communicating with them what he could, and had witnessed the eruption of a nearby volcano in 2010, the accounts of which he told with such a casual nonchalance that you could have mistaken his tone for describing the process of drying paint. He would also end up being one of the most genuinely kind people we would come across for the entirety of our time in Indonesia, which made us quite happy to have him as our guide.
For our first two days in Jogja, the services of Adi and his becak would only be needed to take us to nearby bus stops where we would take various buses to the nearby ruins of Borobudur and Prambanan. For our third day in the city, Adi took us to see two of the region’s other claims to fame: the processes behind making batik, a kind of dyed fabric, and wayang, or shadow puppets.
To understand the cultural importance of batik to Indonesia and especially the island of Java, one has to look no further than the fact that the country has an airline named after it, Batik Air, a National Batik Day, and its own version of casual Friday in which workers are encouraged to wear batik to work. After witnessing the process of batik making at a small factory near our hotel and seeing the end result, it was easy to see why it had such fanfare.
While the free tour was enjoyable, the free part of it weighed heavily on our minds throughout and our worst nightmares came to fruition as the tour ended in a gift shop where every glance of our eye was pounced upon by a slew of shop assistants who assured us with suspicious frequency that whatever item we had happened to take an interest in was handmade by the artisans we had just seen on our tour. While we were no batik experts, we were fairly certain that the multitude of shirts and tapestries were not made in house as the shop reeked of mass-production, an idea furthered by the fact that every item in it was encased in plastic and had dozens of identical replicas. Before starting the tour, Adi had warned us not to buy anything, advice we had no problem heeding.
From one process to another, our next stop was to see how the wayang was made. Much like the batik factory, we were issued a guide upon arriving who explained each step in the making of the shadow puppets.
As we watched the various artisans meticulously and flawlessly perform the intricate tasks behind the making of each puppet, we were reminded by our guide that he too was an artist. While some of the others used paintbrushes and chisels as their tools, he wielded his mouth, which he used masterfully to create a kind of verbal art that we found just as fascinating as the making of the wayang.
Our last stop of the day was Taman Sari, a once sprawling palace complex used for relaxation and retreat by the Javanese sultans in the 18th century. There, we braved the debilitating heat to explore one of the only remaining parts of the original structure: the baths. Once used as a place for the sultan to observe concubines before choosing one as his companion for the day, the grounds were now filled with revelers of a different kind, tourists. As we walked around the compound, we found ourselves staring longingly at the baths, whose cool waters and bubbling fountains served as a different kind of temptation: an escape from the midday sun that, unlike the concubines, would remain forbidden.
The next day, our last in Jogja, would be highlighted by our trip to the Kraton Palace. While the palace itself wasn’t very impressive, the cultural performances put on there were. Not having been able to see a wayang performance the night before due to it being a national holiday, we were pleased to find that the show being put on at the palace that day was a puppet show. Sadly, it wouldn’t feature the shadow puppets we were so hoping to see in action, but another kind endemic to the island, the wooden puppet.
As we watched the telling of the Ramayana story, our inability to understand the words being spoken in no way diminished our enjoyment of the show. Colorful beings danced and floated effortlessly on the stage to the beat of the smooth and sure voice of the dalang. Behind the scenes, a gamelan orchestra played a hypnotically soothing melody that made us wonder how anyone could possibly stay awake for an eight hour show, let alone one that took place overnight.
Because Javanese puppet shows, both shadow and wooden, can be enjoyed from either in front of the stage or behind it, we decided to go behind the dalang to see the source of the music. There, an ensemble of musicians gently tapped away at their instruments which seemed far too large to be making such a gentle sound. The hands making that sound, which, as frequently as the music allowed, would replace the grip of their mallets with that of a cigarette, were noticeably aged. As we trailed the plumes of smoke up to the faces of the musicians, many of them looked as if this was more of a retirement gig than a career which made us wonder anew what the culture of Jogja would look like in another decade or two. Sure the palace would still be standing, as would the other structures we had seen, but would music still be filling its halls and puppets still dancing to the enjoyment of others?
It was with great relief then that, while writing this blog, we discovered that UNESCO, which famously designates certain tangible sites like temples as integral parts of culture, began designating the intangible aspects of it as well. They did so out of a fear that things like batik making and wayang shows could very well disappear as the world became more and more globalized, social structures changed, and younger generations began seeking careers outside that of the unstable one of artisan. To get designated, a country must provide a detailed plan of how they will preserve the art form they want to protect and, in return, get funding and support from UNESCO. For a city as rich with culture as Jogja, it was reassuring to know that both the tangible and intangible aspects of its heritage would continue to be interwoven into the fabric of the city for generations to come.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
What we cannot faithfully communicate,
Art alludes to what words elude.
in art, as in speech,
it still may not convey
You must search for the meaning,
Take the wayang.
Every inch is a symbol.
Each burst of color
is a burst of meaning,
about the nature of humans.
Yet, it hides
behind a screen.
Displaying its truth
Walking up to Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, one could be forgiven for confusing the man-made wonder for a small mountain. Built in the 9th century, abandoned in the 14th, and long forgotten afterwards under layers of ash and a thick growth of jungle, Borobudur could very well have looked even more like a mountain than it had to us before Dutch colonialists, intrigued by superstitious tales of ill-omened ruins deep in the wilds of the Indonesian island of Java, dug the temple out of its bushy overgrowth and revealed it once more to the world as the awe-inspiring structure that it was.
Having visited Prambanan, a nearby Hindu temple complex, the day before, we worried that our appreciation of Borobudur would be somehow diminished as a result. From afar, the temple, a dark gray blotch crowding the horizon, was impressive in size only, its shadowed figure standing in stark contrast to the vibrant greens of the grass and trees surrounding it. Up close though, it became a work of art with a myriad of details covering its different levels, which, like terraces, corralled up and out of sight towards its apex. The more we took it in, the more our worries of Borobudur being somehow dulled because of our time at Prambanan became laughable.
Unlike Prambanan, choosing how to experience Borobudur proved rather easy. While the former had a multitude of temples scattered about its grounds with no discernible way to view them apart from wandering around aimlessly, Borobudur consisted of just one temple, however massive, and just one suggested route for viewing it. The five-kilometer route, as old as the temple itself and just as important to its spirituality as the many carvings and statues covering its walls, consisted of circumscribing each level in a clockwise fashion until reaching the top; a journey meant to symbolize one’s worldly pursuit and ascent towards nirvana. Each level, we would discover later, represented a different stage in that pursuit: the lower levels representing the world of desires where one’s identity is tied to the things they want in life, which is, namely, life itself; the middle levels the world of forms where one no longer pursues desire but whose identity is still linked to their face and name; and the topmost level the formless world or nirvana where identity melts away into eternal nothingness.
As we ascended the temple level by level, we found ourselves unconsciously adhering to what each section represented. In the lower levels, the world of desires, we were greedy in our want to take in every detail. This turned out to be quite the pursuit as every inch of each level’s corridor was covered with reliefs depicting various scenes from the Buddha’s life as well as the glories of the kingdom that constructed Borobudur; to say nothing of the countless other statues and carvings that seemed humbly content with being one of the many minor and overlooked details of the temple, which, when taken as a whole, contributed flawlessly to its grandiosity.
Moving further up into the world of forms, we found ourselves resigned to fact that there were simply too many details to take in and became content instead with appreciating the temple as a whole, our attention often drifting from the reliefs and carvings that still ran alongside our path to the natural scenery outside the temple, whose beauty and expanse seemed to grow with each level.
To pass from section to section, it was necessary to walk through a doorway atop which sat a deity called Kala, who is said to represent time. As one ascends further towards the formless world, they must continuously grapple with the concept of time and their relationship with it. As you willingly give up desires and identity, you resign yourself to the impermanence of all things, an essential step in moving closer to nirvana.
Passing under our last Kala-capped doorway, our journey took us outside the boundaries of time altogether to the formless world, where the multitude of carvings fittingly gave way to vast open spaces void of detail save the stupa encased Buddha’s dotting the platform. The experience was transcendent. We knew nothing of the stories that the reliefs depicted and were oblivious to the meanings behind the other carvings and imagery of the temple until the writing of this blog, yet when standing atop the temple and looking out at the vast valley it sat in, we experienced an overwhelming state of calm and appreciation toward the greater world, a mindset that was fiercely challenged by the hordes of tourists surrounding us who had also achieved metaphorical nirvana.
Our blissful crash course in nirvana attainment came to an abrupt end as security guards ushered us out of the upper tier of Borobudur and back to the world of desires where, for the rest of the night, our only desire would be to return to the temple and experience it once more.
When confronted with the wonders of nature, it becomes not at all surprising that it took humankind a few millennia to supplant religion with science. For, when face to face with the restless oceans, bottomless caves and capricious volcanoes of the world, one would be hard pressed to convince someone that behind the scope and fury of the nature in question was not an all-powerful and vengeful god but merely a case of natural phenomenon. It was with this thought in mind that we gazed out at the lakes of Kelimutu, which over the years have taken on any number of colors, from red to blue to green to white to brown and even black. That the lakes were passageways to the spiritual world, a belief traditionally held by locals, seemed much more likely an explanation than the fact that their otherworldly color was a result of“oxidation-reduction chemical dynamics” due to the underlying volcanic activity.
To see the lakes we would be staying overnight in Moni, a small town on the eastern-side of the Indonesian island of Flores. Our homestay, unassuming in its simplicity, would end up being one of our favorite places to stay during our time on the island and the whole of Indonesia for that matter. This was due partly to its quiet and welcoming setting, but mostly to the owner who, laid back and reggae-loving, embodied Moni. Our short stay there was highlighted by a wonderful dinner he prepared for us, which, we were told, was made from ingredients that he himself either grew or sourced locally. What surprised and impressed us most about this was that it didn’t seem like a business scheme, something he tells visitors to brand his establishment as eco-friendly, but rather what he truly believed in. It was with deep regret then that we would only be staying for one night, if not for giving business to someone who truly deserved it, then at least not for being able to enjoy another delicious meal.
Early the next morning we enthusiastically got dressed in a manner befitting of someone going to see a sunrise, for under no other circumstance could we ever be excited or spry after a 4:00 alarm. Once at the foot of the volcano, the incandescent reach of our smartphone’s flashlight, accompanied by a cloud of swarming gnats, guided our way up the dark and overgrown steps that led to the craters. At the top, a small collection of fellow crater-lake admirers had already gathered along with coffee and snack hawkers who, crouched and unmoving as the wind whistled and whipped around them, looked permanent in their perches around the viewing platform.
To describe the lakes themselves, the suffix of -ish becomes necessary for restricting their appearance to just one color would be a disservice to their uniqueness. Amidst the lifeless terrain of grays, browns and dull and darkened greens, the lakes, a pastel shade of bluish-green that would have looked much more at home in a paint can rather than a volcano crater, practically glowed. The sky above, a marbled gray, offered little hope of seeing a sunrise, though one wouldn’t be necessary as the beauty of the lakes made it difficult to imagine our attention being given to anything else.
As we marveled at the phenomenon, any number of fantastical explanations seemed plausible to explain the lakes. To us, they called to mind the magical contents of a cauldron, otherworldly in color with wisps of fog coiling off of them and up into the sky, making it seem like the lakes themselves were the steaming contents of a witch’s brew. For the local people of Moni, they believed the lakes to be a final resting place for departed souls, one for the elderly, one for the young, and one for the evil souls of the world.
With a driver waiting to take us back to the homestay and a trip to the nearby city of Ende still on the day’s agenda, we decided to bid the lakes farewell, returning through the deadened landscape to our awaiting transport back to a reality significantly less enchanting than the one we had just experienced.
Read on for a poem by Kate:
A Kelimutu Fairytale
Long ago in ages past
The sky liquified
and poured itself into craters.
Now it lies,
whispering breaths of steam
that float and morph
among ribbons of breeze.
A piece of rock breaks away
from the wall and tumbles
into the depths.
Sulphuric toxins wrap
around the rough edges,
acidic fingers dissolving
it as it submerges.
The surface is still
Pulled from the pages
of Brothers Grimm,
The lake is an ethereal queen
with a witch inside.
Our experience of Tokyo was probably different from most others’. There were no trips up towering skyscrapers, walks through busy shopping districts, or even a viewing of sumo wrestling for that matter. In fact, before we had even come on the trip, we knew the bustling metropolis would be serving more as a base for us than a destination. Having just come from Shanghai, another one of the biggest cities in the world, we were more interested in the charms of a smaller city like Kyoto or the natural beauty of a place like Mt. Fuji. However, as we found out in our brief time there, Tokyo had a lot to offer outside of the typical sights of a city.
We technically had four days in the capital, but three of those consisted of trips to the train station in the morning and from it at night with an occasional meal thrown in. The only real time we had in the city was our last day there, a full one that ended with a train ride back to Osaka to catch our flight. Wanting to make the most of it, we got up early and set off to see the Tsukiji fish market, the largest in the world.
When we got to the market, the condition of the morning–cold and early–gave us and the other tourists a zombie-like pace. Bundled bodies shuffling around each other in the maze of walkways inside the market gates. Our sluggish state was by no means shared by the workers though for, while our day was just beginning, theirs was coming to an end. They zoomed around us from every direction, weaving in and out of each other like a school of fish. Perhaps the ocean wasn’t the only thing they shared with their product.
The drastic difference in pace, to our surprise, never seemed to bother the workers outside of an occasional eye roll or deep sigh. Even when we would do foolish things like stop in inconvenient locations to look at a map, pausing for long moments to try and decode the nearly illegible mixture of lines and symbols, the bodies, forklifts and trolleys would just move around us. This held true for other tourists too, but it didn’t mean that we had a happy coexistence with the market for, while it allowed us into it, it in no way changed itself to become a tourist attraction other than the slew of sushi shops sitting at its gates. Because of this, the market’s relationship with us was more of toleration than accommodation, which made the experience all the more unique and exciting.
Little by little, our bodies thawed and we migrated towards the back of the market to see where the actual fish were sold. As we made our way out of the crowds and down a dark hallway littered with dusty machinery, bright lights in the distance assured us that we were going in the right direction and, when we reached them, we entered into a world of styrofoam and ice on which laid fish of every size and color. We had read before coming that the fish were for sale only to restaurants and bulk buyers so we were largely ignored during our time there which worked to our advantage as we were able to work our way through the labyrinthine market without being pounced on by eager vendors.
Among the bountiful variety of fish and seafood we saw lining the aisles of the market, some of the more interesting ones were: sea cucumbers, blowfish, octopi of every size (and sometimes just their tentacles), sea urchins, and tangles of crabs, most of which were still alive. Occasionally we would even come across remnants of the 4 a.m. tuna auction, giant fish heads laying on the ground whose bodies were most likely in the back of some van heading to a restaurant. Seeing all of this seafood, even the tuna heads strangely enough, reminded us of the other reason we had come to the market: to try the sushi, which we heard would be the freshest we would ever have.
Finding a restaurant to satisfy our appetite for sushi proved easy enough, the tricky part came in choosing which one to go to as each that we passed had a line snaking out of it so long it would make an anaconda blush. This, we figured, meant that they were all equally good and we randomly chose a restaurant with a green awning that sat at the market’s entrance. After getting in line we began to creep forward little by little but our steps were too infrequent for our liking. Nonetheless, we waited, our appetites borderline ravenous as we watched satisfied face after satisfied face leave the restaurant. After over an hour, we stood at the front door, next in line to go in and hardly able to contain ourselves as we peered through the steamy windows at the people enjoying their sushi inside.
Finally, our names were called and we smugly entered, abandoning the rest of the line-dwellers to their fate in the cold. As we sat down and took in our surroundings, we found out why our wait had been so long. The interior sat fewer than a dozen and the staff consisted of one waitress, who doubled as the cashier, and two sushi chefs. After settling in, the waitress brought us a mug of oolong tea and laid out a banana leaf before us which we knew would soon be decorated with the colorful variety of sushi we had just ordered. A bowl of shrimp head soup was added later and we filled up a dish of soy sauce in preparation. Now fully ready, we watched the chefs artistically prepare each of our rolls, slicing slivers of fish and adding pinches of wasabi to the balls of rice in their hands.
We had heard that the process of becoming a sushi chef was an arduous one, requiring years and years of training and experience before getting certified. While we initially questioned the necessity of this, as we slid the first salmon-capped roll into our mouths, we realized it was a process we were extremely grateful for. Eel, shrimp, squid, and tuna followed along with rolls of sea urchin and fish eggs. We meticulously chewed each bite, wanting to savor each new flavor and texture we were experiencing. As we did this, the sushi, so carefully prepared, practically melted in our mouths. We’d had sushi many times before, but this felt like we were trying it for the first time–a kind of born again sushi enthusiast.
After savoring our last piece and knowing that there were people waiting anxiously outside, we paid our bill and left the restaurant to a barrage of jealous stares from the faces in line. After the fish market, we debated where to go next. We had wanted to see a few more places before leaving, but after pulling out our map, we realized how poor our planning had been and just how drastically we had underestimated the size of Tokyo. For some reason we expected temples, museums, gardens, and shopping districts all to be clumped together conveniently in one place. Apparently, the zoning commissioners of the ancient city didn’t have tourism in mind when they laid it out.
With the sights we wanted to see in different corners of the city, we realized that we would only have time to visit one and decided on the oldest temple in Tokyo: Sensoji. As we got off the subway and walked up to it’s iconic front gate, we wondered if we were going to see a temple at all. Crowds and noise exploded out of the entrance, making for a very un-templelike atmosphere, but exciting nonetheless. Eager to see what the commotion was about, we maneuvered through the people and entered the gate, passing under the giant red lantern that hung from its ceiling. As we did this, the path we were walking on became lined with rows of souvenir shops and food vendors which both eventually led to the temple itself. Looking off into the distance was like looking down a hallway with the mass of heads serving as the floor, the store fronts as the walls and the sky as the ceiling.
Wanting to reach a less claustrophobic space, we made our way down the path to the second gate, which looked strikingly similar to the first, and passed through it into an open plaza. The smell of incense filled the air and we gazed around, taking in the different features of the temple. A pagoda jutting out from the landscape, the main temple with a mob of people filing in and out, the Tokyo Sky Tree off in the distance, and, one of the more unique features, giant sandals mounted on the wall of the gate.
It was bittersweet walking around the grounds knowing that this would be our last experience of Japan outside of the interior of train cars and airports. With this in mind, we made sure to enjoy the temple to its fullest, which reduced our pace to a slow contemplative meander. Minutes turned into hours and, as the lights and lamps slowly started to flicker on around the temple, we knew the moment we had dreaded had finally come. Despite only spending a week in the country, we had grown attached to it. We were aware of course that we were experiencing everything through the all-too biased tourist goggles, where everything is new and wonderful, but we’ve been many places before and this one felt different.
Perhaps the feeling could best be summed up in one of our very last experiences in Japan. After getting a train back to Osaka late that night, we discovered that the subway trains and city buses going to the airport were no longer running. So, with no place to stay and both of us being too stubborn to pay for a taxi, we decided to just wander around the city. At about 3 a.m., after getting some coffee at a gas station, we went back to the bus stop to sit and wait for the 3:30 bus. As we sat and sipped our coffees, an old street sweeper came by and began making his rounds. After sweeping for a short while, he saw us sitting there, came over, and proceeded to carry out a conversation with the handful of English he knew. After a few minutes of exhausting his arsenal, he gave a friendly wave and went on sweeping down the street. Even at 3 a.m., in an unfamiliar city outside in the cold, we still felt comfortable. For us, more than the sights and tastes, this was Japan.
The journey to Jigokudani from Tokyo was long but enjoyable and ended as our bus rolled up a snowy hillside and came to a stop outside a small wooden shelter. The bus driver began shouting some things to the passengers and we listened attentively to the string of Japanese that ended with “snow monkeys” in broken English. At the sound of this we stood up along with everyone else and shuffled out into the cold. After looking clueless for a few moments, we were lazily pointed in the direction of the park and anxiously began making our way further up the hillside, following the signs with little pictures of smiling monkeys on them to guide us. The signs eventually led us to a steep set of stairs towered over by a big banner adorned with pictures of bathing monkeys, our official welcome to the park.
Despite the icy state of the stairs, we opted to forego the crampons being sold at the foot in the hope that our boots would be sufficient enough to carry us up. Luckily, the hill was short and a rope laid alongside the stairs, both of which served to our advantage in getting up it easily without the traction of the crampons…frugality had won out this time. Once at the top of the hill, we were met with a scene out of a Christmas greeting card. The path, now long and flat, wound into a thick forest of cedar trees, whose branches still carried the burden of the latest snowfall, some of which would occasionally fall on our heads, creating the illusion of a blizzard.
It was exciting seeing snow again after nearly two years without it. Our enjoyment of it was aided by nostalgia and the fact that it was the kind of snow depicted in the movies, white and pure, a far cry from the gray, sloppy reality of a Midwestern winter. Without fail, snowballs were made and trees (and occasionally each other) were targeted as we slowly made our way along the path. After meandering for about 30 minutes, the forest cleared out into a valley whose edges we would zig-zag up to continue our hike through the park.
As we walked along, little by little, we would start to notice more people on the path. A person here. A family there. Some were on their way back from the park, parents clutching children who were excitedly recalling what they had both just seen. By that time, the trees and snow had become old news and our pace quickened in anticipation of what we knew was so near. Finally, we came to an area where a small crowd of people were huddled under a tree. As we followed their gazes up it, we got our first sight of the macaque monkeys that gave the park its fame.
As excited as we were to see it sitting perched in the tree, our attention was quickly diverted because another monkey would brush our leg, or walk by on the railing beside us. Everywhere we looked there were monkeys and as interested as we were in them, they couldn’t have cared less about us. An obstacle in their everyday life. If the rice that they snacked on wasn’t thrown from human hands, who knows if we would have been tolerated at all. For our sake though, we were, and not only that but able to interact with them in a way we had never been able to with wild animals before.
Determined not to overstep our boundaries though, we kept our distance, appreciating the monkeys from afar while on the lookout for the onsen, a Japanese hot spring, where the monkeys famously bathed. We only had to look as far as the crowd of people mushrooming out from a steaming cluster of rocks in the distance to know where to go.
Walking up to the onsen was like walking through the TV screen into a National Geographic special. All around the hot spring, monkeys lounged around in different states of indulgence. Some partook in gluttony, lapping up water and picking bugs, others in sloth, sitting on the rocks surrounding the water and soaking in the steam. Perhaps the smartest and most blissful looking of all though were the ones physically in the pool, most of them with their eyes closed, tuning out the world around them. Having just been to an onsen ourselves the night before, we felt a bit like voyeurs gazing in. This feeling wouldn’t last long however as the smell of monkey feces carried to our nostrils by the hot spring’s steam put an end to any trace of jealousy we were feeling.
Occasionally, a monkey would grow tired of the hot spring and climb out, fur soaked and steaming, and make its way through the crowd, which consisted of a slew of paparazzi, cameras ready and hanging on their every movement. Each time a monkey would do this, or anything that resembled exertion, a chorus of oohs and ahhs would accompany it. Despite this and our constant crowding around them, blocking their paths, and shoving cameras in their faces, the monkeys, for the most part, kept to themselves, scoffing at the attention being showered down on them.
This wasn’t always the case though, as Kate found out first hand what happens when the line of tolerance is crossed. Leaning in to take a picture of one particular monkey whose privacy had apparently been invaded too much that day, Kate was swiped at by the monkey who then proceeded to jump on to her and climb up her leg. As this happened, those around her were much more concerned in extending their camera lenses than a helping hand, leaving Kate to fend for herself. Luckily though, the monkey’s efforts to retrieve the camera were abandoned rather quickly as it lost interest and moved on to its next endeavor.
Taking the hint, we moved on from the hot springs, following the river that flowed alongside it to a more open area where the simian-sapien ratio wasn’t as human heavy. Among the abundance of monkeys lounging along the banks, we chose to sit by three who were picking bugs out of each other’s fur. Shortly after we sat down, the monkeys heads shot up and they and nearly all of the other ones around them began hurrying over to the hot springs. Curious to find the cause of commotion, we followed the migration to a group of park rangers throwing a dinner of rice grains into the hot springs and surrounding snow banks. The bugs, we supposed, had been their appetizer.
Oddly enough, as we watched the monkeys forage though the snow and water in search of the rice we were reminded of our own hunger and decided to bid farewell to our newfound friends, making our way back through the forest and down the hillside until finally reaching the bus stop to take us back to Tokyo.