How to summarise three years into a few paragraphs is the challenge that I face coupled with the fact that my first post is also my last. Thanks Kate for allowing me to have the last word at least once in three years ;-). You already know what we have been up to while here, and I have nothing new to add, instead I would like to thank all of you who visited us during our adventure (some more than once) and share with you my thoughts of Japan and its people.
Starting with my three things that you must make the effort to experience in Japan: Onsen, Nihonshu and Sumo; chances are if you do the onsen you get my other passion – fast trains (shinkansen) as a bonus.
I came late to Onsen, forced into baring myself to the Japanese male population due to lack of en-suite. In fact no toilet, bath or shower in the room at all. Fortunately for my modesty, I was alone for my very first onsen. It did however, leave such an impression on me that I was compelled to try it again; the 2nd time was not a solitary experience. As Gaijin in Japan the feeling of being alone in onsen, even when surrounded by a dozen or more naked bodies, never really goes away. It was by luck that Kate and I stumbled on Rotenburo (outside bath) and Konyoku (mixed bathing – yes boys and girls together) at the same time.
Konyoku is easier for boys, there is something primitive about letting it all hang out; while for girls I understand it must be daunting surrounded by a bunch of “perverts” staring at you. The reality however is less perverse and more akin to chatting over dinner. Sure, it takes something to bare yourself physically with family/friends but that’s also what makes it unique, sharing a hot bath chatting about the day’s activities is both confronting and liberating at the same time. Wintertime throws up one of nature’s gifts: Rotenburo in the snow, sitting in a hot bath while snow is falling and freezing in your hair is somewhat surreal. Finding such treasures is not easy for gaijin, some knowledge of Kanji (Chinese characters) is necessary to decipher the Japan Rail Onsen brochure. Alternatively advice from a Japanese friend/colleague (good luck here because most Nihon jin don’t do Konyoku), or some blind luck may help in finding one of these treasures. My advice is get over your embarrassment and give it a go. Even if you cannot bring yourself to try Konyoku at least take the plunge with rotenburo in winter time.
“Rice wine” to most gaijin but such definition seems dismissive and misses what sake is all about. The literal translation of “Sake” is actually ‘alcohol’, so if you order “sake” on the train, or in a restaurant or bar, the waiter/waitress will wait for you to clarify what kind of alcohol you would like. Nihonshu will get you what non Japanese call sake. Like wine in Australia, Nihonshu is available everywhere, but finding really good examples can take some work. Like wine it helps if you know whether you like sweet or dry, but even these simple descriptions are relative. I prefer dry wine, but sweet sake!! Warm or cold? Depends upon your taste, the sake and the weather. Usually I take cold, it will warm up a little while it sits between pours. Winter is good to take warm when it’s cold outside. The flavour will change with temperature and no two sakes will deliver their best at the same temperature so it pays to experiment. Sake is available in supermarkets, convenience stores and the like; most department stores will have somebody offering tastings, but the price there is comparatively high. Expect to pay $30-$50 a bottle for those tasting bottles in such stores, compared with $10-15 for good quality if you go to a specialist retailer. My recommendation is find an Izakaya or yakitori shop (pub/restaurant) that has a good selection (10 or so is important so you can be confident they are serious about sake) and try a few different ones over a few plates of food. If you find one you like then photograph the label and head to your local store.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is more physically demanding and skilful than the size of the combatants would suggest. Sumo is steeped in tradition and may appear repetitive as the introduction and preparation for each bout are pretty much the same.
A day at the sumo (and it can be a full day if you start with the junior grades from the opening) is a must, but it can be difficult to get tickets on weekends, unless you are prepared to queue from 5 or 6am for last minute tickets.
The real action starts around 4pm when the top rikishi (the term wrestlers is taboo) are introduced. Until then the arena will appear very sparse with most spectators only turning up to watch these “giants” of the sport. The rules are very simple, the first competitor to touch the floor with any part of his (there are no female rikishi and women are not allowed on the dohyo) body except for the soles of his feet, or to touch outside the circle with any part of his body.
In Tokyo Sumo tournaments are held 3 times each year in January, May and September so if you are in town at these times make the effort to see this Japanese spectacle.
Japan as a country:
My first experience of Japan was definitely a culture shock. The bus trip between Narita airport and Omiya is all freeway and there is not a hint of green except for a few rice paddies close to Narita. The signs were all in Japanese, few English words written and fewer spoken. I felt as though I had come to a strange concrete land, and in many ways Tokyo still has that feeling.
Despite being most people’s first experience of Japan I always say “Tokyo is not the real Japan”. It is a melting pot of people from all around the world and all around Japan, each so wrapped up in their own world that they rarely see what is around them. To gaijin Tokyo is still a polite world, far removed in both culture and distance from their homeland. It is only when you venture outside Tokyo that you understand that, for all its cosmopolitan exterior, Tokyo is a poor reflection of Japan and her people. For all its cosmopolitan exterior, few Tokyoites will attempt to speak English. Compare this with rural Japan where even people in small villages will try to engage you in English. That’s not to say that English is widely spoken in Japan but serves as a stark reminder that Tokyo has a long road to travel to the 2020 Olympics.
Warm, welcoming, humble, traditional are words that spring to mind in describing the Japanese. I have always felt comfortable in Japan, in fact I once said I feel more peaceful here than anywhere I have ever been. The people follow the rules; so life here is harmonious, to the extent that even drunken salary men are not threatening. I put it down to the samurai factor, 200 years ago the people who broke the rules were quickly despatched at the neck, such respect for authority is at the core of the culture here.
At work they first seek to place everybody in a hierarchy so that they can apply the appropriate amount of respect. The other trait that defines Japanese is the “need” to follow the defined path. The kata or “way” of doing things is scripted, even for mundane tasks. Enter any shop and you hear the ubiquitous greeting irashaimasse. This is not unique but is the scripted “way” that customers shall be greeted, whether in Takashimaya, the large department store, or a local sushi shop, the welcome is the same. This need to follow the script can be good, except when there is no script, so a big challenge for me has been to get my colleagues to think and apply knowledge sometimes with no instruction book.
Like many things in Japan hotels are unique. My first instinct was to look for a point of comparison, so attempted to compare ryokans with Singapore Hotels, Asia + hotel, easy, right? Not so, as it quickly becomes clear that, even for chains with the same American name, things are not comparable. The rooms are smaller, the bars may not actually sell alcohol and, usually my favourite, the breakfast buffet does not have the same range, especially of fruits and breads, as my benchmark hotel. The traditional Japanese hotel (ryokan) follows a tried and trusted formula that, I imagine, has been unchanged for centuries. As with all Japanese houses it’s shoes off and Japanese slippers on at the entrance. The room is rarely available before check in time (usually 3pm) and will be a tatami room with a table in the middle, on the table is a round container housing the tea set and if you are lucky a sample of the local sweets (available later in the hotel shop).
Dinner is served mostly in room and comes with ubiquitous “fish on a stick”,
whole freshwater fish impaled on a skewer and cooked over charcoal. After dinner is usually Onsen which gives staff time to make the beds (futon). Handy tip; put another futon or three under the first one, they are hard on gaijin heavy bodies and it usually results in a “princess and the pea” experience. Breakfast is similar to dinner, usually salmon and rice with natto which Kate has explained in an earlier post. Check out is like any other hotel except that (in keeping with the kata) when you leave the staff will be bowing (rain, hail or snow) until you are well out of sight.
Mount Fuji, or Fuji-San to the Japanese is, for most Gaijin, just a good photo opportunity. Fuji-San is elusive in the summer months and, even when she shows herself, appears grey and, well….bland. In winter however Fuji is transformed to the snow capped monument that is the essence of Japan. To Japanese Fuji-San has a god-like status, and after three years here I start to understand somewhat the attraction, I still get goosebumps seeing Fuji at sunrise or sunset from our apartment. I always pause slightly exiting the barriers at Ageo station in the morning for the slightest glimpse. It would have been a fitting end to our Japanese adventure to close with a Fuji sunset.
The “real” Japan
While it is true that Japan has a large population in a small country its natural beauty is stunning. Mountains, white in winter offer world class skiing, during spring the colours come to life and so do the hikers dressed in the latest season gear complete with walking poles and the all important “bear” bells. Most Japanese have never seen a bear and this can likely be attributed to the constant chiming of geriatric jaywalkers which reaches a crescendo during Autumn, when nature paints an amazing canvas which they vainly try to capture with Canon. Paddington and Pooh never stood a chance and probably wished they could hibernate early to escape the din.
It is testament to this country and it’s people that, despite it appearing the same year after year people immerse themselves, never tiring to get yet another photograph of Fuji-san, a blossom, tree, mountain or scene that despite their best efforts can never be fully captured in time. This probably best sums up our time in Japan, it was beautiful, we tried to see as much as we could, took many photographs and were blessed with many visitors, we met some wonderful people and will take with us memories that may fade with the passing years. We have attempted to share with you experiences which cannot be described, stored or recreated, our winter approaches….but in true Japanese style we’ll come back and attempt to recapture it again.
Finally thanks to my beautiful wife Kate for helping to make our life in Japan such good fun. I cannot express my appreciation for all that you did. Here’s to the next chapter……