Inspired by BlackBerry, Gizmodo commissioned former staff writer Adam Frucci to relay his boldest experience, and here it is. Read his original, continent-spanning essay below to discover how chicken gizzards and the universal language of sake turned into an experience that altered the course of his life.
When I was working at Gizmodo in 2007, an opportunity arose for me to go on a press junket to a factory in Seoul. The company in question offered to pay my way, but as that was against company policy, Gawker footed the bill for me to fly to South Korea, connecting in Tokyo.
Long story short, the trip to the factory fell through about a week before I was due to leave. I could have just stayed home, but it was too late to cancel the tickets and get any sort of refund. So since the money was being spent anyways, we decided that I would go but skip the connecting flight to Korea and just stay in Japan. By myself. For two weeks. It was a total last-minute scrambled plan, a little terrifying, and the absolute best thing that could have possibly happened.
I don't know a lick of Japanese—well, I know how to say "thank you," thanks to Styx, and how to say "chef's choice," thanks to fancy New York sushi restaurants. Both ended up coming in handy, but other than that, I was tossed into the land of the rising sun without much prep.
One of the best things about traveling alone in a foreign country is that it forces you to really interact with the people there; you can't hide behind your English-speaking travel companion. So I found myself wandering around Kyoto late at night, hungry, trying to figure out just what the hell I was going to do for food. This led me to a restaurant that was essentially a bar with eight seats with a guy working a grill behind it. Two guys in suits were smoking cigarettes at one end of it, and that was about it. I sat down, said "omakase" ("chef's choice"), and received a six-course dinner without being able to speak a word to the chef/server other than my order of whatever the hell he wanted to serve me. That ended up being some stuff that I was familiar with—chicken yakitori—and some things I was, well, less familiar with—raw chicken gizzards. But hey, when you don't know how to say "no thanks, I don't want to get food poisoning by myself in a country where I don't speak the language," you have to just embrace it. And you know what? Those raw chicken gizzards were pretty damn good.
And also not the weirdest/grossest-sounding thing I ate! Due to the solo nature of my trip, I reached out to the folks that run Gizmodo Japan, and they were nice enough to meet up with me, give me a tour of the Akihabara electronics district, and then take me out for a few drinks and feed me food I never in a million years thought I would eat. Like river eel and egg casserole or raw horsemeat sashimi. Don't judge me, but I ordered seconds of the horse.
Of course, there was more to hanging out in Japan on the company dime than eating animals beloved by tween girls. I also went to some of Japan's most famous temples in Kyoto, which seem specially suited for the kind of quiet, slow wandering that solo travel encourages. Less conducive to such contemplative endeavors was chain-smoking vending-machine-purchased Seven Stars while becoming obsessed with a strange, drum-based arcade game that I kept finding all over Tokyo. It was an arcade game with a gigantic drum for a controller, which is all you really need to know about it. The fact that America still doesn't have these things all over the place is proof that we're a culture in decline. Then there was the skyscraper-tall Ferris wheel with the transparent-floored cars. And the Japanese-game-show-themed indoor theme park in which I embarrassed myself by failing at some feats of strength in front of the girl running the thing, who couldn't stop laughing at me and, I assume, insulting me and my waifish arms in Japanese. And, of course, getting lost in that incredible subway system, which was an adventure in itself.
Going to a factory in Korea with a bunch of other American nerds would have been fine, sure. We would have been taken care of, shown around, provided with food and tours and the sorts of things designed to make ignorant, English-speaking Americans such as ourselves feel comfortable in a foreign land. But to go to a country you're not too familiar with, not speaking a lick of the language, and figure it out as you go? It's much scarier in theory than it is in practice, and pushing through that apprehension gifted me with two of the best, most exciting weeks of my life.
But really: thank god those raw gizzards didn't kill me, right?
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Adam Frucci is the editor of Splitsider, a blog about comedy. He will happily travel anywhere if someone wants to foot the bill.