Japan-tastic

As I sit here, speeding through Tokyo on the bullet train (or shinkansen), I gobble an egg salad sandwich, as simple as it sounds, bought at a ubiquitous FamilyMart  convenience store. I have no idea why the abundant convenience stores here — be it 7-Eleven or Lawson — make such famously tasty little sandwiches, so humble and dainty even the crust is removed. America, lick and learn. 

Day Five in electrifying Tokyo, I’m now on the train to this jovially mad city’s near polar opposite, ancient, placid Kyoto, a major urban center flavored with temples, shrines, gardens and the fading tradition of the rosy-cheeked geisha. I envision relative quietude, and mounds of soba noodles and many yakitori skewers. (For now, I’ve had my fill of sushi, though more is assured later. In fact, once in Kyoto, I was quick to mark a conveyor-belt sushi joint next to my hotel.)

Tokyo, as American kids would say, is lit. And lit (well, lighted, blindingly) it is, vibrating with a friendly freneticism, thrumming with courteous, controlled chaos. It lacks New York’s pavement-pounding determinism and San Francisco’s self-satisfied beauty and bohemianism. Order reigns and rules are followed — you’ll never see a jaywalker and there is absolutely no litter, not even a stray cigarette butt, bizarre for a city totally bereft of sidewalk garbage bins — but it’s not the slightest iota oppressive or authoritarian.

Far from it. This is a city filled with laughter, a robust nightlife (several nightlifes, as the many neighborhoods, from Roppongi to Shibuya, boast their own partying personalities) and a staggering overall kindness and politesse. The locals are approachable and often approaching, just to see where you’re from or if you need anything, and also to practice their English. They are unfailingly accommodating and vigorously helpful. People don’t yell, don’t argue in public, hoot or holler. Truly, the only vocal noise to break the sound barrier I’ve experienced is laughter.  

Now, a couple days later in Kyoto, I find, unsurprisingly, the same congeniality and penchant to oblige, but in a far more compact if still bustling setting. As with Turkey, it’s the people who make the deepest impression here. I’ve been pegged a misanthrope (who me?), a bit inaccurately, but whatever. People just make me nervous. I blame my own ample timidity, baseless anxieties, feeble fears that rattle the mind and inflame the stomach. The point is I find the people here wonderful, even wondrous, comforting; cool, models of affable composure to be emulated.  

There’s lots to write about this trip — the food, the drink, the stores, the temples, the shrines, all that electric overkill — but I’m vacating, so I’ll let pictures do the blabbing.

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Sushi, sake and 7-Eleven: My top 8 eats and drinks in Japan

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In two weeks I head to Japan, one of the best food and drink cities in the world. Last time I was there, I was green, gullible and a little lost. I ate at places I stumbled on that simply looked good — I had no reservations — and bought drinks at random bars or even from beer vending machines. This time I’m prepared. My eats itinerary is tight and structured, and I’ve wisely left a few days open for discovery. Below are eight of my top food and drink destinations in Tokyo and Kyoto:

1. Tokyo boasts more Michelin Star restaurants — 230 — than any other city, making the neon-marinated metropolis the world’s number one food destination, according to France’s revered (and feared) Michelin Guide. I can’t afford a 2-star or 3-star outing — like Sushi Jiro, whose stardom skyrocketed after the worshipful documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” — nor will I subject myself to the fussy rigmarole of trying to reserve a spot at one of them, itself an Olympic event demanding backflips, secret handshakes and blood oaths. I did, however, after some patient, nimbly maneuvered reservation action, land lunch at Ginza Iwa Sushi, a 1-star Michelin destination, whose fixed-menu fee ($101) makes me blanch. One of the most popular sushi joints in Tokyo, Iwa serves a 12-course lunch and is known for its elegance, tradition and finesse. And wallet-thinning powers. 

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Ginza Iwa Sushi

2. Though I never dream about it (unlike Jiro and his sushi) and only eat it about every three years, yakitori is one of my tongue-tingling tops. It’s primarily grilled chicken skewers, but also features eel, myriad meats and grill-happy veggies. For my yakitori fix I’m going to Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi in Kyoto, an unpronounceable place so popular I had to secure a reservation through my hotel concierge months ago. It’s considered the best yakitori in Kyoto. Online reviews speak of chicken transcendence.

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Yakitori at Sumiyakisosaitoriya Hitomi

3. I know, well, nothing about one of Japan’s national drinks, sake. (It’s rice wine, right?) I’m here to learn. And drink. Hence the Sake Tasting and Lecture I’ve booked at the foolishly early hour of 1:30 p.m. (on Halloween, no less). It’s set in an izakaya — a snug local bar where a variety of small dishes and snacks are served with alcoholic drinks — where pupils of the potent potable will taste eight to 10 kinds of sake under the affable tutelage of a guzzling guru named Murata. I’m actually not a big sake sipper, though I had some the other night at, what else, a sushi dinner, and it was cold, smooth, savory. Teach me, master (small bow).

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4. My last time in Tokyo I visited the legendary Tsukiji Fish Market at the crack of dawn, extremely punchy from staying up all night, mildly partying before quaffing Starbucks. I was a beet-eyed mess, weaving through the warrens of stalls and stands filled with fresh-off-the-boat fish and sea creatures, snapping zesty photos, lost in the briny commotion of frenetic commerce. Rudderless, I just wandered where my soon-soaked sneakers took me. I didn’t know where to eat some of the fresh catches, which is something you definitely do at the market, and I didn’t know where to go next. I needed a guide. That’s what I’ll have with the Tsukiji Fish Market Food and Culture Walking Tour, a 3.5-hour expedition, starting at 8:30 a.m., through the largest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world, and one of the largest wholesale food markets of any kind. Sushi, sake, fried fish cake, tea and a Japanese omelette are just part of the menu. Sobriety is another part. 

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5. I’m in Japan, one of the supreme culinary capitals in the world, and what I’m craving, with impish urgency, is … an egg salad sandwich from 7-Eleven. This, I swear, is a thing. Convenience stores (or conbinis) are rampant across the country — there are at least 50,000 — with three reigning chains: 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart. Here’s where you find whack Japanese to-go cuisine, from dried squid and deep-fried quail eggs; to insta-noodles and syrup-filled pancakes; to 9% alcohol beer and ongiri (seaweed-wrapped rice stuffed with savory fillings). And, of course, the homely, homey egg salad sandwich (tamagosando). Celeb chefs Anthony Bourdain and David Chang have sworn by their tastiness and websites are devoted to them. 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart offer variations on a simple theme, using fluffy crustless white bread and the Japanese mayonnaise Kewpie. “Japanese mayo tends to be more tart than American mayo, with a mild sweetness and robust umami that gives it a bit more flavor,” writes a blogger, who conducted an egg sandwich showdown between those at the three major conbinis. (Spoiler: 7-Eleven stuffs the most egg in its sandwiches, as seen below.)

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Egg salad from FamilyMart, 7-Eleven and Lawson

6. Hailed by many cocktail connoisseurs as one of the best bars on the planet — and easily the best in Tokyo — Bar Benfiddich, in the city’s sleepless Shinjuku district (where my hotel is, conveniently), pours classics with radical twists. Show-runner Hiroyasu Kayama has been dubbed an alchemist, whose design for the bar was a “moonshine den, dark and mysterious, with dusty 19th-century bottles and jars of arcane herbal infusions.” It is intimate. How so? Try eight seats and two tables. I’m lining up. Now.

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Bar Benfiddich

7. I lust for ramen — I’m partial to mazemen, or brothless — and it had better be excellent. I like my noodles thick and savory and chewy. The best ramen in Kyoto, they say, is Kyoto Engine Ramen. No reservations, so I’m crashing the place. I only know what I’ve read in the noodle-sphere, the bulk of it stellar, exalting the omnivorous varieties and vegan options. Ordering’s a breeze: From a vending machine you purchase a ticket with your selection on it, then slip it to the server. “The space itself is groovy and modern. Cool jazz was playing. A nice touch was the cute little Shintō shrine behind the bar,” writes a guest. I wanted more about the ramen (photos show mouthwateringly complex bowls). Then I read this: “The ramen is bomb!!!” Pow.

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8. Beyond the go-to Suntory brand Bill Murray shills in “Lost in Translation,” Japan distills several top-shelf whiskies, most of which can be sipped at LiquorMuseum Pontocho in Kyoto, a seatless, stand-at-table whisky pub run by surpassingly knowledgable whisky whizzes. They serve 1,000 types of drinks at the esteemed bar. All drinks are 500 Yen (including tax), or about $4.65. And there’s no service charge. I’ll have another one, bartender-san. 

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LiquorMuseum

I’m doing fine, angst you very much

I’m a nervous guy, anxious about some things (social situations, small children, cancer, Tyler Perry movies) though calm about others (air travel, clowns, death), making my anxiety pool a kind of grab-bag, a Kellogg’s Cereals Fun Pak, if you will. 

Neuroses are a blast, a frothy enchantment of stomach pangs, irritable digestion, insomnia, jitters, fatigue, hypochondria, fatalism and an ambient unease that makes you want to switch skins with the nearest stable person, no matter if his name is Rupert.

Mornings are the worst. But as the day unfurls, the bad, the black, slowly burn off. By night I’m mostly calm, relaxed, hardly even thinking about brain tumors and leukemia. I assume that’s why I am steadfastly nocturnal, vampiric, stiff drink in hand.

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For instance, when I wake each morning, my upcoming Japan trip sounds like a terrible idea, an exorbitant blunder and colossal miscalculation. My stomach flips; I wince. Around midday, I warm to the thought and picture an experience of Michelin-star sushi, bullet trains and megalopolis madness. By dark, optimism flowing, I’m on the computer or flipping pages plotting my incontestably epic and mystical adventures in the Far East. 

They make pills for this, of course. But meds are at best serviceable. Too meager a dose scarcely soothes the nerves. Too much tends to narcotize. Things are lighter — aren’t they always when you’re napping? (Not really. My dream realm is an id-iotic hellscape of troubling memories, fraught encounters and anything that gnaws on my insecurities. Kafka would clutch his chin and nod.) Plus, you don’t know what’s what with some of those sedatives. A doctor once told me to chuck my Xanax. “That stuff is crack,” he scoffed. Oh.

I don’t think I’ve ever had a panic attack, unless that time browsing with my niece at the American Girl®  doll store counts. Though I have experienced shortness of breath, racing heart and a kind of overwhelming, generalized terror of being alive. I suppose that counts, even if I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a clinically defined panic attack and merely my reaction to deliriously unfunny ventriloquist Jeff Dunham’s latest Netflix special.

Want to churn my anxiety? Make me speak in front of a group, crowd or microphone. I don’t do meetings, panels, town-halls, televised interviews or, for that matter, karaoke or charades (charades — parlor game of the dark arts). I kind of recoil singing “Happy Birthday” among friends. With pathological resistance, I avoid having my picture taken (keep your cameras to your selfie).

My low-frequency embarrassment, raking self-consciousness and broken self-esteem are congenital delights. In the words of Morrissey (indeed, Morrissey), I am infected with a ”shyness that is criminally vulgar.” None of it is fun or poignant. But what are you to do? Therapy, meditation, yoga, tequila shots, a fistful of Clonazepam. These have been tried. Futility reigns. Relief is fleeting, often downright illusory. 

And yet we soldier forth. We function in spite of the topsy-turvy tummy, mild paranoia, paper-thin skin, social squirming, hyperbolic pessimism, etc. Then I think: I’m going to Japan in three weeks. That’s something. During my extensive travels, my angst all but evaporates. I am unshackled, life’s daily detritus dispersed by an existential leaf blower. For this trip, I expect elation, moderate ecstasy, radical stimulation and some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. Nothing short of sublimity.

I am nervous as hell.

When Halloween gets lost in translation

Pretty much kaput, Halloween means just about nothing to me nowadays. The thrill is gone. The chill is gone. I’m not 7, dig. 

Yet something about Halloween sticks, hovering like a blanket of graveyard fog. Each year I gladly inhale the occasion’s residual festive fumes, pumped in like so much giddy-making nitrous oxide. Hey, unlike zombies, I have a pulse.

Though costumes are long — and forever — doffed and I’ve retired the habit of sneaking morsels from the communal candy bowl (It’s for the kids, dammit!), I remain devoted to this perverse, very North American celebration of the gross, grim and ghoulish. (And, yeah, I lied: the Reese’s cups are mine.) 

But I effectively don’t partake in the big-picture party, unless you count sometimes serving as the eve’s Doorbell Dork, doling out Snickers and Tootsie Pops, smiling like the village idiot on cue when a particular and rather mystifying catchphrase (starts with trick) is shrieked by decked-out kiddies (and a few shameless, straggling grown-ups who can only dream they’re getting a Kit-Kat from this finger-wagging candy dispenser).

It’s a festival of enforced flamboyance. Excess is enshrined. Generally sane people douse themselves in corn syrup blood. Sex is flaunted in racy micro-fashions: cats and maids and devils. It’s masks and makeup and Marvel; wigs, witches and wizards; Pokémon, pirates and pop stars (and, yes, Pop Tarts) — the palette is as infinite as it is infantilizing. The id comes out to romp. 

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Halloween in Sevilla, Spain, 2016 — amateur hour.

In placid suburbia, lawn dioramas have grown ambitiously disgusting. I love the sinew-chewing zombies (with staticky sound effects), life-size, yoga-posed skeletons and tombstone-cluttered cemeteries, gnarled limbs popping out of the ground. I beseech you: gross me out.

It’s a bacchanal of fantasy and horror, whimsy and steroidal imagination. It’s pop cinema — slashers to superheroes — sprung to life. And it’s uniquely, wildly American (and, I hear, Canadian). 

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Halloween, Beirut, 2008 — not cool.

I’ve done Halloween in London, Paris, Beirut, Ho Chi Minh City, Kathmandu and Sevilla. As the locals tried to summon the spirit, they invariably botched the holiday, blundering with gauche costumes (er, blackface in Beirut and Paris) and feebly attended parties — strictly amateur hour, training wheels required.

Except when they’re not. Except when the night has been co-opted with the verve and vision matching the western prototype. All eyes on … Japan. It’s said that Japan has only been practicing Halloween in earnest for five years. But amateurs? Hardly.

The Japanese were born pros, built for Halloween. Nothing is lost in translation. Dress up and cosplay are daily mainstream occurrences. Stroll anytime through Tokyo’s Harajuku district for teen fashion so high, so rococo, it passes as a perpetual street costume party.

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Harajuku teen, Tokyo, in April 2006.

Which should make this year’s Halloween something special. I land in Tokyo on October 30, giving me less than 24 hours to steel for whatever that hyper-charged city has in store in the way of a woozy wingding.  

Because there is no way I’m not wading into the most outrageous Halloween hotspots — like bustling, youthful Shibuya, where a million revelers are expected — to get the full Japanese treatment: anime and cosplay characters, J-horror ghosts and vampires, video-game avatars and the universal diet of Star Wars, Harry Potter, Power Rangers and other mega-brands. (Oddly, Where’s Waldo? seems to still be popular. I’ll look into it.) 

This is what I wanna see, Halloween with kick (I’ll return with a full, bloody report):

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Witches? Zombies? No idea but I’m thrilled. 
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Nerd, nerd, nerd, nerd and nerd. That’s five nerds. God bless them.
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Grisly Disney: zombie versions of famous cartoon characters, including Minnie Mouse and Snow White.
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A gaggle of zombie fast food (flesh food?) servers. Do you want fingers with that human hamburger?

And the best for last …

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Random reflections, part IV

This painting kills me. It’s titled “Brave Cone Dog” and it’s by a wry, puckish character named Brandon Bird, who makes very witty pop art. I don’t have much to say about the minimalist image, because it speaks (morosely, piteously, hilariously) for itself. I own a framed print of it, and everyday it stirs in me an emotional milkshake. 

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“Brave Cone Dog”

This I like, from a recent book review: “Walter Benjamin wrote that a truly great sentence is one that’s been burnished to perfection, then sabotaged in some respect. Wounded or weakened just sufficiently to seduce.”

As a kid, I was a quivering hypochondriac. To wit: At age 7 I had a cramp on the left side of my belly that lasted a couple hours. Convinced it was appendicitis, I curled into a ball in my parents’ empty bed and envisioned horrors of surgery and gloom and, yes, death. The cramp subsided and I proceeded to watch TV, tear-streaked. Around age 9 I had a swollen bruise on my knee that I mistook for a malignant tumor. I crumpled on my bedroom floor in a sleeping bag, too distraught to clamber into bed, and imagined losing my leg to certain amputation. Later, I calmed and accepted that it was just a bruise and I watched TV, tear-streaked. I still often misdiagnose myself, hurling me into fleeting, fluttery hysteria. Then I watch TV, tear-streaked. Reader, WebMD is your foe.

In this week’s “By the Book” column in The New York Times, singer-author-badass Patti Smith is asked “What’s the last great book you read?” She replies:

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Recently I was captured by two small, addictive works. “Kingdom Cons,” by the Mexican author Yuri Herrera, floored me. … And “Star,” by Yukio Mishima, is a startlingly modern, hypervisual jewel; it could be a really interesting movie. Both books were mesmerizing, seeming to fall in my hands from an alternative sky.

As I’m doing a semi-immersion in Japanese literature and film in preparation for a fall trip to Japan, I picked up “Star,” which is about a hot movie actor in existential distress. From Smith’s zippy description, I expect glitter and diamonds.

At the cafe today, a 30-something hipster in a wool fedora, four-day stubble and ratty Chuck Taylors sans socks sat next to me, slipped on headphones and went on to loudly tap his feet and roll his head, wearing an imbecilic grin, all but dancing in his seat. I wanted to spill his kombucha. Was I wrong? And: He wore a large thumb ring.

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One of the Japanese movies I’m revisiting before I go to Japan is “Ichi the Killer,” a shock-cinema bloodbath from bad boy auteur Takashi Miike (say: Meek-a). About a kidnapped yakuza boss, his punky minion — a psychopathic sadomasochist whose specialty is baroque disfigurement — and the titular hero, a bullied weakling out for revenge, this notoriously twisted crime comedy was tonic jazz the first time I saw it. Now it mostly plays as an extreme exercise in tedious transgression: How disgusting can we get? Bloated with rape, murder, drugs, gangsters, prostitution, masturbation, self-mutilation, unthinkable torture, disembowelment and ample amputation, the film is set in the sometimes seamy nightlife district of Shinjuku in Tokyo. Which is where I’m staying. 

I‘ve owned pet rats named Phoebe, Becky, Tammy and LaShonda. A friend told me I’d inadvertently given the rats the names of receptionists at construction companies.

The other day I actually saw a guy rollerblading in the neighborhood. That is something you cannot unsee. It’s sort of like seeing someone on a unicycle.

Words I love: blithebloviate, evanescent, loquacious. Let’s add nincompoopery to the list.

Random reflections, part III

“We die — that may be the meaning of life,” said author Toni Morrison, who died Monday. “But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

I‘ve tried many times to watch “The Princess Bride,” “Stand By Me” and “When Harry Met Sally,” but I’ve never been able to get through any of them. They are ham-handed. They aren’t funny. They clunk. That Rob Reiner directed all of them is strictly coincidental.

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The famous “orgasm” scene, which gets more embarrassing with each viewing.

I swear, Cubby the dog has a perverse crush on the female cat Tiger Lily. He gawkily flirts with her, and her eye-rolling indifference is touching. Such inter-species passion is a spectacle. I sure hope I don’t see a newborn kitten that barks.

I jot in my journal pretty much every day with purpose and the fugitive hope of substance. The author Yiyun Li writes, “How did I forget to start each and every page of my journal with the reminder that nothing matters?” My head nods vigorously.

The last time I went to Japan I got hooked on the sizzling pop art of Takashi Murakami, whose work spans painting, sculpture, fashion, merchandise and animation. It’s fun and whimsical and dazzlingly colorful — and not a little geeky. His subject matter is cute (kawaii), psychedelic and satirical, with well-trod motifs: smiling flowers, mushrooms, skulls and manga culture. Murakami could be the Jeff Koons of Japan. I’m going there soon. My goal is to get Murakami’d, big time.

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My phone’s current wallpaper.

A few years ago I discovered I had an adult-onset allergy to shrimp and prawns. It’s like the second worst thing that’s ever happened to me.

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A fan of novelist Colson Whitehead, I’m deflated by his new, lavishly overrated book “The Nickel Boys.” It lacks energy, momentum and finally fizzles at the halfway mark. So I put it down (I also couldn’t get into his early novel “John Henry Days,” though I’m all about “The Intuitionist” and “The Underground Railroad”) and picked up Haruki Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood.” I’ve read one other Murakami novel, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and I almost threw it against a wall. The edge is where I live.

Tonight we popped a bottle of Suntory Whisky Toki, “blended Japanese whisky that is both groundbreaking and timeless.” It is silky and smoky with strong, sweet vanilla notes. I think none of us is going to bed.

Quentin Tarantino has made movies. He has made only two masterworks, “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” That was a very long time ago. The rest of his oeuvre seesaws from juvenilia to junk. As critic David Denby wrote on the release of the imbecilic “Inglourious Basterds”: “Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.”

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Intimacy is scary. Love is scarier. Someone recently dubbed the phenomenon “the terror of loving.” I like that. Its precision is chilling.

I am typing most of this in the air, row 45, seat G, on United flight 497 to San Francisco. You might say I’m skywriting. Forget I just said that.

Monkey see, monkey don’t

There’s a monkey on my back.

Several, actually. And they want my money. Every time I open a website, they are there, pawing at me.

The animals are macaques, with pomegranate faces and heads hooded in fuzzy Eskimo parkas rimming wise, frowning visages of grizzled monks or mystics. They are bathing and grooming and picking at each other in hot springs at the Jigokudani Wild Snow Monkey Park in Japan. They look to be suffering chronic mites and fleas.

-20121121232817-39B6918F7B8D4ED4BEC436470B0205E1.jpgThey are world-famous monkeys; you see them in every other wildlife documentary, steam rising around their half-submerged bodies. These simian superstars are chillaxing in a simmering jacuzzi nestled amid frosty mountains. And they pick and pick.

I, for one, can’t avoid their pink, pensive faces. They want me to come visit them, terribly. Ever since I began researching hotels, food tours and day trips in Japan, the insistent monkey pop-up ad, hectoring click-bait, has infiltrated all of my most visited sites, from The New York Times to Rotten Tomatoes. I can’t get the goddam monkeys out of my sight. Fortunately, they’re cute and furry. Unfortunately, they’re expensive. 

For about five seconds it’s tempting to actually take the ad up on its offer with a simple click: $146 for eight hours of touring, including one (one!) hour at the monkey sanctuary; time at the famed Zenko-ji temple; lunch; some sake sipping; and, really, not much else. Bullet train transportation is not included (rip!).

And can you believe this: “Guests are not permitted to touch, feed or bathe with the monkeys at any time.” I guess I won’t be bringing a towel and a bar of Dial.

So the deal effectively stinks, even if you do get a brief (dry) encounter with the enchanting, lightly parboiled macaques.  

Yet more caveats abound, and they are dire. I came across an alarming blog post titled “Why Seeing the Snow Monkeys in Japan Sucked” (read it in full HERE). A grisly excerpt:

“Instead of a snow-covered paradise, I was standing in what felt like a construction site full of rubble, with piles of rocks and exposed cables forming a backdrop against the commotion. I watched in dismay as staff at the Jigokudani Monkey Park threw food at the agitated macaques until they began to screech and fight on the damp mud. This was one of the worst animal encounters I’d ever experienced.”

No monkeys for me. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Click no evil.

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