In our early research into Japan, we devoured pretty much any information we could find that we thought would give us a sense of what cities we might like to visit. As we were reading about Kanazawa and Takayama several sources gave us the impression that these two cities are essentially interchangeable, and a visit to one obviates a visit to the other. This seemed like a reasonable thing to say, having never visited the cities, but as our luck would have it our CouchSurfing journey took us through both, allowing us to judge for ourselves.
Whoever decided that these cities are in any way similar (other than being in Japan) has either not visited them both or is simply confused. Takayama is bucolic, historic and quiet, while Kanazawa is a large city near the sea, swarming with activity, high-rise buildings and a maze of modern streets filled with people. As we stepped off the train and caught a bus to meet our new host, Motoko, we marveled at the stark contrast between the two cities and wondered how anyone could think them similar.
We arrived early in the day and Motoko was still at work, unable to meet us until six, so we had some time to kill. We decided our first order of business should be to get Steph some new shoes, as the sneakers we brought for her had been ruining her feet. Fortunately, the area we were to meet Motoko in was flush with department stores, so finding somewhere that sold the right kind of shoes was no problem.
With shiny (literally!) new shoes in tow, we then wandered through the food wonderland that is the basement of any Japanese department store worth its salt and marveled at $70 (USD!) grapes and debated if dropping 600 yen on one peach would ever be worth it (after weeks of fruit deprivation in Japan my answer was creeping closer to “yes” every day). The upshot of such expensive fruit is that every piece, every single grape is so obviously perfect, it almost makes you believe the money is justified. Instead, we bought some deceptively expensive (and delicious) pork belly and 15 little cakes called taiyaki, which are shaped like fish and filled with magic (well, okay, custard and chocolate among other delicious things).
After our successful shopping excursion we went to meet Motoko at the appointed hour, and sat in front of a tiny Buddhist shrine across from a busy department store. She arrived, and guided us to her nearby apartment where she proceeded to take far better care of us than we expected or deserved, preparing a delicious dinner of curry rice and traditional Japanese side dishes. Once more we were humbled by the hospitality and generosity of spirit of the Japanese people.
After dinner Motoko got out the shoju (Japanese liquor made from sugar cane, among other things) and opened “Bar Motoko,” preparing delicious and refreshing lime and shoju cocktails. During cocktail hour Motoko showed us her collection of NHK (Japan’s equivalent of NBC) documentaries on the United States. It was really interesting to see our home country through the eyes of a foreigner, and getting a chance to see what interested the Japanese audience and how they interpreted the places we were so familiar with was a treat.
Now very tired and well on our way to intoxication, we went to bed, Motoko going so far as to give us her own bed and sleeping on a futon in the living room. Motoko’s selfless dedication to our comfort, excellent English and warmth of character had quickly proven that even if Kanazawa had been a disappointing city (which it wasn’t) our visit would still be a wonderful one.
The next day we rose, ate a delicious breakfast of soba and hit the streets, having left it up to Motoko to pick her favorite sights to share. Although it was a Monday, Motoko had graciously taken a day off from work so that she could show us around; just another example of her expansive kindness! We were slated to have dinner with several of Motoko’s friends later that night, so we planned on our day being fairly relaxed. Considering the overwhelming heat and humidity outside, a mellow day suited all of us just fine.
We began by wandering through the old streets of Kanazawa’s historic district, scurrying from one pool of shade to another while taking in the splendor of the ancient samurai homes and narrow lane-ways. Like so many other Japanese cities, Kanazawa has a river running through its streets and the cool air rolling off the active water was briefly revitalizing. After the old town, we walked through Kanazawa’s bustling Omicho market, which was a sea of people and goods in every direction and was mercifully out of the sun. The market has an unexpected charm, and feels almost isolated from the noisy streets of the city. Wandering where so many Japanese people do their daily shopping was a wonderful way to feel closer to the culture, and reaffirmed that food is always one of the best ways to connect to a people. And what a spread was on offer here! Nearly anything you could want (and plenty we didn’t!) was available for sale…
After exploring the market, we rambled on to Kanazawa’s main attraction, Kenrokuen Garden, ranked by many as one of the top three gardens in Japan, which is to say it was excellent. The garden was everything we expected and more. Lush, tranquil, grand and utterly breathtaking. We could have spent all day soaking in the beauty of the place, it felt so removed not just from the bustling streets of Kanazawa, but from the entire world.
When we finished in the garden, Motoko took us across the road to the remains of Kanazawa’s castle and led us around the grounds, taking us on the “free tour” and showing us what remained of the buildings that hadn’t burned down. We had already discovered that Motoko has a way of being charmingly candid that is both refreshing and delightful, so when she said there was no point paying to see a bunch of buildings that were only special because they are old, we laughed inwardly and gladly obliged. As our trip progresses and we get further from Kanazawa, we often find ourselves saying “what would Motoko say about this?” while grinning because we knew the answer would always cut to the heart of the matter.
After fighting off the oppressive sun and heat for most of the afternoon, Motoko took us through Kanazawa’s modern art museum, home to some impressive works of art and air conditioning, which was enticing enough on its own. One of the exhibits was replete with a line of rocking chairs that I thought were simply there for tired museum-goers. Silly me! I should have known that in a country where public benches and chairs are almost non-existent, the rocking chairs would be part of the exhibit itself, and as we soon learned, rocking chairs are not common in Japan. In fact, Motoko had never sat in one before, and was a little mystified by the point of a rocking chair. While she was unsure what she would do in one for any period of time, she did concede that they are quite relaxing.
After the museum, we gladly went back to Motoko’s apartment to get ready for dinner and to cool off a bit. Dinner was at six in a restaurant downtown, and we were excited to meet Motoko’s friends and experience Japanese culture in a way only CouchSurfing allows. The food was a mixture of Japanese interpretations of Italian dishes, though there were a few French and Spanish dishes thrown in for good measure, along with some dishes found only in Japan. It was, in a word, eclectic, but also quite delicious and cheap! Conversation and wine flowed well, and as empty bottles piled up, the company became more lively and animated than we could have hoped, filling us with warmth that was not just from the spirits. We ate and drank late into the night, only leaving when a contrite waiter came to inform us that the restaurant was closing!
We were honored that Motoko chose to let us so far into her life, introducing us to her friends and allowing us to be a part of her world. As we walked back to her apartment, Motoko revealed that one of her friends had never spoken to an American before and had been very nervous to meet us, but now he was so excited by the experience he had vowed to learn English! This same friend then told me that if I lost some weight I would look like Tom Cruise, and I assured him that by the time I looked like Tom Cruise his English would be very good indeed.
Ready for bed, we shared a cab with one of Motoko’s friends and stumbled back to her apartment. We had an early train to catch, and as was the case with our previous CouchSurfing hosts, we were wishing we could spend more time in Kanazawa enjoying the excellent company. Motoko sleepily declared Bar Motoko closed for business, however Café Motoko was open for tea before bed. The next morning we bid Motoko farewell, grateful but also sad that our time was already over. As we walked to the train station we knew we would come back to Kanazawa again because we knew we would be welcome, which is the best reason I can think of to return to a place.
One of the most remarkable things about our CouchSurfing experiences is how quickly we felt like a part of the people’s lives we had temporarily joined. After only a day, Motoko felt like a friend and had treated us like family from the very beginning. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the “magic” of CouchSurfing and how transformative these experiences have been for us, and I think it’s safe to say that we haven’t overstated our feelings on the matter. There is a lot of talk about how being a good host is endemic to the Japanese culture, and I have no doubt that played into some part of our experiences, but more than that, I think we were simply lucky to be chosen by some really excellent people who were genuinely interested in opening their home and their hearts to us. Even though we only had two hosts during our month in Japan, those two experiences deeply affected us in ways we didn’t expect and will never forget.
So, Motoko, if you’re reading this (and we dearly hope you are!): Thank you! Thank for treating us so well, and thank you for showing us your country and your city and your culture. If you’ll have us, we’ll gladly return and make up for lost time as soon as we can.