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Japan Is Cool

Sightseeing is not an activity Tommy has ever had much enthusiasm for. A few years ago, in Paris, we could not get him into a single museum. But in Japan, he was open to everything—and even the most seemingly staid settings didn't disappoint. In the National Museum in Nara we came across an exhibit devoted to a 1,250-year-old scroll, its miniature narrative paintings unfurling with a modern comic book's action, suspense, and drama. The term manga, which means random sketches, was first used in the early 19th century by Katsushika Hokusai, one of Japan's most cherished woodblock artists. And the connection between classic art and manga was evident even to our untutored eyes.

The stories of modern manga are often based on ancient myths, too. Tommy told us that Son Goku, a character in Dragonball, is modeled on the legendary Monkey King, and his power pole is called nyoi-bo after the iron rod with which the Monkey King pounded the Milky Way flat.

NINE MEALS A DAY Have I mentioned how many times we stopped to eat?This was especially true in Kyoto, a wonderful, walkable city ringed by mountains, every neighborhood of the ancient capital beckoning us to explore it. And as we explored, we ate. We devoured tai-yaki (a freshly grilled cake shaped like a fish, with bean paste inside) and drank Japanese lemonade from a blue bottle corked with a marble. Surely we had nine meals a day. We had tempura. And lots of noodles, which are delicious and cheap. And we had warabi mochi, jellied bean squares dipped in what tasted like powdered peanuts. Not to mention red bean soup swimming with gummy little dumplings. We ate everything and, with the exception of cold yam paste topped by a raw quail egg, we loved everything. If your kid has a breakdown, though, most cities have McDonald's. There are also coffee shops, with, yes, great coffee and fabulous sandwiches on thick, puffy white bread. If Wonder Bread were as delicious as a baguette, it would taste like Japanese bread. We also had amazing snacks: gorgeous blobs of bean paste; Pocky sticks, those chopstick-like cookies dipped in chocolate; rice crackers flavored with shrimp; and, of course, the über-snack—the bento boxes sold at train stations, holding dumplings, sushi, Kobe beef, and octopus, all beautifully packaged with tiny soy-sauce bottles shaped like fish or chubby men.

At regular mealtimes our culinary focus was usually sushi. Tommy would have been happy eating it for every meal. We went to Automats where we plucked little plates of sushi from conveyor belts. It's extremely entertaining, almost mesmerizing, watching the bits of raw fish swim past. When sushi gets too expensive, as it will, you can switch to okonomiyaki, an exotic crêpelike concoction that partakes of the omelette and the pizza pie. Okonomiyaki means "whatever you want," so you ask for, say, shrimp or steak or calves' lung, which is then mixed up with batter and piles of sliced leeks, cabbage, and other vegetables and cooked on a grill in front of you. When it's brown and crisp on the outside, a teriyaki-like sauce is brushed across the top. Then the whole thing is crisscrossed with mayonnaise squirted from a bottle, and sprinkled with dried bonito flakes. Perfect with an ice-cold Asahi.

BURNT BUN MAN RULES! When we weren't eating or sightseeing or taking baths, we simply walked. The jumble of buildings, so ugly to us when we first arrived, became more and more interesting. "This is the most beautiful ugly place I've ever seen," Janet said on our return to Tokyo. Because taxes were once based on a building's width, some houses are as thin as string beans; there are miniature houses, too, the size of Volkswagen Beetles, tucked into corners and referred to as "pet architecture." And there are all those cartoon traffic signs. The little mouse in the blue hat?That's Pi-Po Chan, the Tokyo police mascot. Whole complexes of buildings are festooned with Bathing Ape, a cartoon logo for a line of trendy clothing. Cartoons are what originally sparked Tommy's interest in Japan, and cartoons, from scrolls to neon marquees to stickers, are what we saw wherever we went.

My favorite character is a perennially grumpy burnt bean-paste bun named Kogepan ("A bread has gone sourpuss for being burned," explains his Web site, www.ingram.co.jp/inter/pan/pan.html), although Mr. Sushi Rice and Chu-pakun, the pink-nippled breast that wears diapers, are not far behind. Hello Kitty and her many friends and relations reside within the Japanese phenomenon of kawaii, which means both cute and cool. The culture of cuteness is passionate, and one of the best places to experience it is at a store in Tokyo's Harajuku called Kiddyland. Kiddyland is the FAO Schwarz/Tiffany/Neiman Marcus of kawaii. Six glorious floors of it. No kid will be able to resist its charms. And no adult.

And that, finally, was true of everything we saw, from a geisha arranging flowers on a Kyoto stage to the sumo wrestlers swaying heavily on TV—it was all so new, so unfamiliar, and so impressive. For once, adult and teenager were on equal footing—no lecturing, no scowling, just shared awe. Lost in the vast, futuristic Kyoto train station, raising mysterious gelatinous morsels to our lips, stunned by rock gardens and bullet trains, lulled by baths, seduced by a mouthless cartoon cat, two adults and one 15-year-old boy actually shared a vacation.

CATHLEEN SCHINE's latest novel, She Is Me, was just published by Little, Brown & Co.

If some Japanese words sound oddly familiar, it's because they've been creatively adopted: "ho-teru" (hotel)
"basu" (bus)
"fo-ku" (fork)
"kakute-ru" (cocktail)
"aisukuri-mu" (ice cream)

Toilets in Japan are divine. Not only are they heated, they also spray you clean and blow you dry—and play a recording of a toilet flushing to drown out any other sounds that might come from your vicinity. No toilet paper required, unless you encounter the old-fashioned squat toilets, in which case, ladies, wide-legged pants are not a good idea...


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