Tag Archives: Japan

Monkey Business (Quite Literally)

(Note:  This is a reprint of one of my most popular posts which first appeared on November 21, 2010.  A number of readers asked me to reprise it so, as a favor to them, here it is.  Enjoy.)

One of the pleasures of extended travel is the chance to get off the beaten path; to see unusual and wacky sights not included in Fodor’s or Frommer’s but which remain in your mind long after the “biggies” of the local travel scene have faded into oblivion.  That is exactly what happened to Ruthie and me on our visit to the Kayabukiya Tavern in Utsunomiya, Japan, 50 miles north of Tokyo.

Fuku-chan Serving My Wife Sake

We were told about this unusual tavern by our son, Ben, who saw it on the ABC-TV series, I Survived A Japanese Game Show.  It is a sake house where the waiters are, honestly, macaque monkeys.  The animals bring hot towels to your table, as is traditional in Japan, serve beer, sake, and hot tea, collect the bill, and bring change.  They also accept tips, but not cash–only edamame (soy beans).   The monkeys are actual employees whose hours and working conditions have been vetted and approved by both local authorities and Japanese animal rights organizations.  When we saw these furry waiters on a You Tube video we knew this was something we had to experience for ourselves.

Fuku-chan Joining Us at the Dinner Table

We stopped at the restaurant on our return from Nikko, a major tourist center near Utsunomiya and had the privilege of enjoying drinks and dinner served by Fuku-chan (F) and Yat-chan (M) as well as meeting their two young off-spring being groomed as the next generation of waiters–when it comes to monkeys, it appears it is easier to breed new employees rather than hire them.

Yat-chan Serving Customers Wearing a Fright Mask

In addition to bringing drinks and collecting the tab, these hairy denizens also entertain guests in typical monkey style–doing back flips and balancing on balls.  However, the most unusual (and weird) part of the evening is when they don their “fright masks.”  It is strange enough to be waited on by a monkey; now imagine being served by a monkey dressed as a two-foot tall replica of Jason from the horror movie “Halloween.”  Trust me when I say this was a unique experience, and one of the reasons Ruthie and I so enjoy living and working abroad.  The Kayabukiya Tavern would certainly not be part of your standard two-week “Highlights of Japan” tour.  However, when you are overseas for two or three months, rather than two or three weeks,  you have time to discover these little known tourism gems.  Yet another reason for taking a working vacation.

If you will be going to Japan in the near future, please stop by Utsunomiya and give our regards to Fuku-chan and Yat-chan.  And don’t forget the edemame.

(Read about our life and times in Japan and more than a dozen other exotic working vacation destinations in On The Other Guy’s Dime.) 

Monkey Business (Quite Literally)

One of the great pleasures of extended travel is the chance to get off the beaten path; to see those unusual, wacky sights not included in Fodor’s or Frommer’s but which can remain in your mind long after the “biggies” of the local travel scene have faded into oblivion.  That is exactly what happened to us on a visit to the Kayabukiya Tavern in Utsunomiya, Japan, 50 miles north of Tokyo.

Fuku-chan Serving Ruthie Some Sake

We were told about this tavern by our son, Ben, who initially saw it on the ABC-TV series, I Survived A Japanese Game Show.  It is a sake house where the waiters are, honestly, macaque monkeys.  The animals bring hot towels before the meal, as is traditional in Japan, serve beer, sake, and hot tea, collect the bill, and bring change.  They also accept tips, but not cash–only edamame (soy beans).   The monkeys are actual employees whose hours and working conditions have been vetted and approved by both local authorities and Japanese animal rights organizations.  When we saw it on You Tube we knew this was something we had to experience for ourselves.

Fuku-chan Joining Us At The Dinner Table

We stopped at the restaurant on our return from Nikko, a major tourist center near Utsunomiya and had the privilege of enjoying drinks and dinner served by Fuku-chan (F) and Yat-chan (M) as well as meeting their two young off-spring who are being groomed to be the next generation of waiters–when it comes to monkeys, it is easier to breed new employees rather than hire them

So Far, But Yet So Near

Skyline of the Modern City of Kuala Lumpur Where I Worked For One Week Prior to Going to Japan

In the spring and summer of 2001 Ruth and I spent eight months in Kuala Lumpur, the longest of any of our fourteen working vacations.  We had a superb time, and our stay was filled with fun adventures, trips around SE Asia, even political intrigue–check out Chapter 10 of the book for those rather unusual details.  However, because of the length of our stay we saw much of what the country has to offer, and when I accepted the invitation to be an external examiner and return to Malaysia some of my friends were a bit surprised.  What they didn’t understand is that sometimes you accept a posting not only because of where a place is but also because of where a place is near.

In 1991 I spent a month in Japan (described in Getting Out of That Rut) but, sadly, without my wife–the only extended trip I have taken without her.  I promised her that someday we would return so she could see what she missed from twenty years ago.  This trip to Malaysia was the perfect opportunity.

The Atomic Dome in Hiroshima, One of The Few Building Standing After the Bomb. It Is A National Historical Monument.

The air route from Minneapolis to Kuala Lumpur is via Tokyo.  Once I accepted the school’s offer I asked my hosts to extend the layover in Tokyo on the return trip from four hours to twenty-one days!  They were happy to oblige, and I ended up with a free ticket to Japan. I did the same thing a few years later when I accepted a six-week working vacation in Mongolia that included a glorious fourteen-day stopover in China

So, when planning a working vacation don’t just think about places you want to see but also places that are nearby things you may want to see.  This way you get a “two-fer” all for the price of none!

I’m Back…

Hello again, dear readers.  I just returned from four glorious weeks in Malaysia and Japan ready to renew blogging and eager to again share with you my techniques for finding no-cost, short-term travel adventures.

The Faculty of Information Technology at MMU Where I Spent One Week As External Examiner

I was in Malaysia as the external examiner for the Faculty of Information Technology at Multimedia University (MMU) in Cyberjaya, a new, high-technology city about 25 miles from Kuala Lumpur.  (Note: An external examiner is an artifact of the British system of higher education.  The examiner goes to the school, reviews the program, and makes recommendations for improvement.  It is like an accreditation visit.)  I previously had worked at MMU for eight months in 2001 as a Visiting Professor under the auspices of the U.S. State Department Fulbright Scholar program and, because of their familiarity with my work,  was invited back as an external examiner.  My airline ticket, all living and travel expenses, and an honorarium were included, and it was sufficient to allow me to add a three-week stopover in Japan on the return trip at little cost to myself and my wife who met me in Tokyo.

The Luxury Resort Where I Stayed in Malaysia. Trust Me, I Don't Usually Travel LIke This!

This experience highlights one of the best ways of locating a working vacation–keep in close contact with institutions where you have previously worked.  Assuming you did a good job the first time, and assuming that money is available, there is a high likelihood they will invite you back for a second visit–working vacation redux!   It worked for me, and it can certainly work for you.

Skoshi Nihongo de Hanashimas

That month in Japan flew by quickly as all my previous working vacations had lasted at least three times as long.  I spent one week on campus giving talks, observing lectures, and advising students–trust me, I was not overtaxed!  Following these required duties I was given a Japan Rail Pass, a thick wad of yen, and told to spend as much times as I wanted, or at least as much as the money and rail pass would allow, traveling the country learning about Japanese society.  No fixed itinerary, no packaged tours.  Since many American visitors would find this freedom a bit daunting and, given that English is neither an official nor semi-official language, the school offered to provide a student translator/guide/assistant.  However, traveling with an 18- or 19-year old did not appeal to me, and paying their food and hotel costs would significantly reduce the amount of my travel time.  It was then that the wisdom of an earlier decision became evident.

I was selected for the program in July although departure was not until the following January.  (My school was on a 4-1-4 calendar, with January a self-contained four-week semester.  This visit met my teaching duties for that one month term.)  Since I had sufficient advance notice I signed up to take Japanese 101 in the Fall.  While many tourists learn a few simple phrases such as “Good morning,” and “Where is the bathroom?”  I wanted to learn enough to become an independent traveler, even to remote towns where English speakers are few and far between.  I spent four months studying elementary Japanese and reached the point where I was able to tell people a little about myself, ask for directions (and even understand the answer), get a hotel room, and order meals at cafes well off the beaten tourist paths.

A Ryokan, Traditional Japanese Inn, of the Type I Stayed In During My Three Weeks Traveling In Japan

When I departed Miyagi my hosts were nervous about sending me off without a chaperone, but it worked out far better than I could have imagined.   Of course I went to the “biggies” of Japanese tourism–Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima–but instead of staying at a Sheraton, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, I was able to walk into a local ryokan, a traditional inn, book a room, have meals, and enjoy the hot baths, even if the proprietor did not speak a word of English.  Having learned a minimal amount of Japanese allowed me to visit villages such as Takayama, Kanazawa, and Ise without worrying about whether I would be able to find someone who spoke English.  The smiles on the faces of people I met when I said skoshi Nihongo de hanashimas, “I speak a little bit of Japanese,” was priceless.  When I told them Watashi wa kyoju desu soshte Miyagi Kiyuiku Daigaku ni oshiemashta “I am a college professor and taught at Miyagi University” it produced some (albeit very simple) discussions about where I was from and how long I would be in the country.  I know that I routinely butchered the grammar, just as I probably made errors in this post, but it did not seem to matter.  I had made an effort to learn the language, and they were grateful and appreciative of that effort.  Errors be damned!

When you set off on a working vacation I cannot emphasize enough the importance of learning a bit of the local language–the more the better.  I was lucky enough to be able to register for a university course at no cost.  If that is not an option then look to a local community college or adult education center.  As a last resort consider Rosetta Stone or a good textbook.   Anything is better than nothing.  (I would love to receive comments from anyone who has studied a language in order to interact with the local community while living and working overseas.  Please share your experiences with our readers.)

I know English is the lingua franca of world travel, and you can usually get by with just this one language in your repertoire.  Learning the local language is not done as a survival skill but as a way to create opportunities to get away from overcrowded tourist haunts and see places and sights not often visited.   Speaking a bit of the local tongue also makes an important statement.  It says that you care enough about the history and culture of your host country to spend some time learning their language, at least enough to interact with locals at an elementary level.   The appreciative smiles on their faces will make it worth the effort, errors and all.