Mochan’s Wish Club
Before our voyage departed people posted in a Facebook group their plans for independent traveling, looking for people to join them. Most events were very expensive and/or overly touristic, but I immediately signed up for a homestay with Mochan.
Mochan’s life is Couchsurfing. He has been hosting people for over 20 years, and even met his wife [now pregnant] through it. His life is showing the world a little bit of Japan – his town of Shizuoka. He’s a hilarious, boisterous fellow who knows everything there is to know about his country. We asked him how many languages he spoke, to which he replied [in extremely good English], “Only Japanese”.
Mochan owns a bus, and uses it for showing large groups his country. All 20 of us piled in it, and with him we discovered Japan.
The term ‘tea ceremony’ is actually a mistranslation. The correct translation of drinking tea that has been done for centuries is closer to ‘the way of tea.’
We began by sitting down in a large room and bowing towards the tea master. Tea rooms have traditionally had extremely small doors – under 3 feet high. The symbolism behind this is to show that everyone – including the emperor – is an equal when drinking tea and must bow to the same levels when entering the room. Back in the olden days, these rooms were a symbol of peace. Enemies would leave their swords outside and drink their tea together.
Japanese green tea (matcha) is completely different than the kinds typically drunk in America. It is never sweetened, and is made from powder rather than leaves. It’s extremely strong flavored, and is more of an ‘expresso tea’ as opposed to flavored water.
Because matcha is so bitter, people typically balance the flavor by eating a sweet first. Since we arrived during February, we were presented with a plum bean flower candy.
After being presented with the tea, we bowed to the tea master before turning the cup two turns clockwise before drinking (so that the cup’s design faces away).
The tea master owner requested two volunteers to learn how to make the tea. I quickly stood up with Aurora, who coordinated the homestay. It was a treat – she walked me through the process of carefully pouring the water, holding the cup in exactly the right position, and making the proper turns before presenting it to the tea drinker.
Onsen (Hot Springs)
We spent a night as the only foreigners in a local onsen- getting naked and spending a night alternating between various degrees of scalding water with new friends. The idea was completely foreign and out of my comfort zone at first, but it was actually one of my favorite nights in Japan.
We began, separated by gender, in the indoor pools. None of us were entirely ready to venture to the frigid outside yet. Not knowing which pool to begin in, we got in the closest one first. It had a small waterfall on one side, and was surrounded by large rocks. The water was extremely hot, and I could only last about 5 minutes before taking refuge in a slightly colder [yet still torrid] pool.
Our night consisted largely of this pool hopping. We would be in each spring for as long as we could handle the heat, before moving to the next. Eventually, every pool was too hot and we took refuge in large individual basins of water. As you submerged yourself, the water overflowed and it was beautiful to watch and listen to. I came to forget how hot the water was until I felt the faucet and felt it scorch my finger. At that point I got up quickly and stood naked in the cold for a few moments as I saw stars [both literally and figuratively].
Apparently over on the woman’s side, they also had a cold pool that was used to counteract the heat. We couldn’t find one on the male side, so we just sweated it out.
I expected the full experience to be awkward; I discovered that there’s no better way for making friends than to get naked with them (only partly kidding). The onsen really was the catalyst for making friends during the beginning of our homestay, and I began to understand why the Japanese enjoy them so much.
If you’re going to an onsen, don’t bring your swimsuit.
Mochan lived just about an hour away from Mt. Fuji. He drove us to a 7-11 convienance store, and then to one of his favorite picnic spots near the mountain.
Eating at a 7-11 is very different in Japan. They have an array of fresh hot foods, everything from corn dogs to steamed buns, as well as a medley of cold foods such as salads, sushi, stir fries, and seafood which can all be heated up on request. I ended up buying an inari roll, a shrimp salad, and a salty fruit drink made with grapefruit, lemon, and aloe juice. Eaten at the base of Mt. Fuji, it made a delicious lunch.