Sayonara

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.

IMG_3008

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.

 

 

 

 

Onsen:

Kyounso Onsen Iwate

Kyounso Onsen Iwate

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.

 

Nihonshu:

“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:

Enter the gladiators

Enter the gladiators

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.

ring of rikishi

ring of rikishi

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.

Facing off

Facing off

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.

Get a grip

Get a grip

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.

The concrete jungle

The concrete jungle

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.

 

Japanese people:

Warm, welcoming, humble, traditional are words that spring to mind in describing the Japanese. IMG_3517I 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 IMG_8638defines 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.

 

Ryokan:

 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 IMG_0969(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”,

A school of fish-on-a-stick

A school of 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.

 

 

 

Fuji-San:

IMG_3271Mount 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

IMG_3065While 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, IMG_2027during 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. IMG_5023Paddington and Pooh never stood a chance and probably wished they could hibernate early to escape the din.

Twitchers waiting for the ultimate bird picture

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, IMG_2929mountain 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……

Dressed up for the wedding!

Posted in Travel in Japan | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

White Christmas

Ukai Toriyama entry decorated for Christmas

Ukai Toriyama entry decorated for Christmas

 

Well, Christmas day itself wasn’t white but we did see Santa atop Mt Takao!  It was a quiet day, away from the usual trappings of a western festive season.  An early Japanese dinner at the gorgeous Ukai Toriyama with more traditional Christmas fare for dessert at home – fruit mince pies & fruit cake with custard and ice-cream.  Yum!

 

Coffee at Karuizawa

Coffee at Karuizawa

Boxing Day we set off for snowier climes with first a stop a James’s favourite coffee shop in Karuizawa, then continuing on to Nagano by shinkansen, followed by a bus to our destination Nozawa Onsen.  A small-ish village set between mountains & rice paddies (which are blanketed in snow at this time of the year), it’s loved by snow bunnies in winter & hikers in summer.  Onsen lovers spoilt all year round.  Hot springs literally gush out of the ground at such temperatures that the locals cook food in some of the open-air ponds and it’s not uncommon to see a basket of eggs immersed in the water, cooking slowly (though never quite cooked enough in my opinion!).

During our 4 nights/3 days in Nozawa Onsen, I spent 2 half days skiing, with James joining a lesson one half day also & our guest Anna relaxing with a massage & coffee.  Another visit to the snow monkeys – a favourite of all Aussies, much to the amusement of many Japanese.  Most people expect that we have monkeys in Australia and are rather surprised when I confirm that we don’t.  Some fun in the snow was had & wandering around the village – even finding a decent flat white coffee, a testament to the amount of Aussies coming to this village.

Snowshoeing was on all our must-do lists, so with the tours having not yet begun in Nozawa, we boarded the slow bus down across the valley to Madarao.  Here we joined a Japanese tour

& blessed with the most spectacular weather, ‘strolled’ amongst snow-covered trees in soft, deep but dry snow.  From the top of this ridge we could see across the country to the west coast of Japan, near the city of Joetsu.  Towards the end of the tour, the guide had us run downhill through a pine forest – simply hilarious but quite difficult.  A magical day!

From Nozawa Onsen, we returned via Nagano & Matsumoto where we collected a car to drive up into the mountains deep in the centre of parallel mountain ridges.  In September we visited Kamikochi & this time we were in the next valley & surrounded by snow.  Our ryokan “Yarimikan” was a 200 year old building with various onsen baths along the river dotted with snow-covered boulders.  We enjoyed outdoor onsen overlooking said river; another OIJ (only-in-Japan) experience would have to be relaxing naked (now there’s an oxymoron for some!!) with an old friend while the snow falls around you.  Dinner here was another first for us, where the sashimi was so fresh that the donor was still flapping its gills!!

After a 5th night on futon and after a breakfast free of almost-living fish, we helped to make the end of year mochi.  Starting with cooked rice in a huge wooden mortar, the rice is pounded into a sticky paste with a wooden mallet.  The glutinous mass is ripped into small

zenzai - sweet azuki bean & mochi 'soup'

zenzai – sweet azuki bean & mochi ‘soup’

mochi & floated in a sweet red (azuki) bean soup.  Sounds pretty gross, but it’s actually quite tasty, especially after fish & pickles for breakfast!

We took the easy ride up a double-decker gondola – the Shinhodaka Ropeway.  Here it was -10C but we braved the elements & took a walk through the icewalls, occasionally seeing hikers heading out for overnight stays!  Madness…

From the Shinhodaka Ropeway we followed the snowy roads further west in our little car fitted with snow tyres & chains, though thankfully the roads were well used & cleared regularly by snow ploughs so the chains weren’t needed.

New Years Eve was spent tucked up in the ryokan, enjoying a special New Years meal in our room, while wearing yukata.  Despite it being traditional Japanese fare, there were very few courses that either James nor our fish-dodging friend were willing to try.  Party goers & night owls that we are, we were atop the futon by 9:30pm wondering if it’s an unusual phenomena that futons become harder every night you lie on one…

Shirakawago in winter

Shirakawago in winter

New Years Day dawned beautifully snowy and though we’d experienced fresh snowfall on most days, the spectacle hadn’t yet worn off, especially when James was there to brush the snow off the car!  Today we drove to Shirakawago, the UNESCO heritage village teeming with tourists, even on New Years day.  James and I had visited Shirakawago in late summer, but it is especially beautiful in the winter.

With less than 24 hours before our bus ride back to Tokyo, James announces that he would rather drive home, so I made some hasty changes to our bookings to accommodate his wishes.

Hida beef sushi - absolutely divine!

Hida beef sushi – absolutely divine!

Our first dinner of 2015 was Hida beef, including beef sushi.  Ohhhhh YUM!

Takayama in the early evening

Takayama in the early evening

 

 

 

Posted in Travel in Japan | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Ishigaki island

Ishigaki island

Ishigaki island

A few free days between visitors & the need for a bit of UV exposure saw us fly to Ishigaki island in Okinawa just prior to Christmas.   We rented a car & drove around almost all of the island in just one day, but managed to stretch it out to 2 days with a few stops enroute.  With some of the strongest winds I’d experienced, we chose not to hike nor kayak, especially as it was cool enough to wear a jacket.

Ishigaki lies on a similar latitude to Taiwan & is one of a small group of islands which relies mostly on tourism & a little agriculture.  Sugarcane & pineapples seem to be the main crop here.  Local delicacies include sea grapes (a type of crunchy seaweed), goya (a bitter cucumber-looking vegetable – looks & tastes nasty!) and tofu, so not much to offer in that regard.

 Soft adventure activities like kayaking, hiking, diving & snorkelling are popular here, but of course they are weather-dependant.  The beaches were amazing,but in that they are covered in plastic rubbish which floats in – ostensibly from China & Korea, but I did notice some local products too.  Another common rubbish item were bulbs – amazingly intact – which originate off fishing boats, which light up the ocean to attract fish.  Why the locals don’t clean up the beaches I have no clue.  It is one of those Japanese conundrums which we never

Bulbs litter the beaches

Bulbs litter the beaches

understood.

There are certainly some pretty areas of Ishigaki, such as Kabira Bay (though that beach too is littered with flotsam & jetsam) and the Yaeyama Palm Grove.

Oxen pull a cart along the beach on Taketomi for tourists.

Oxen pull a cart along the beach on Taketomi for tourists.

Our third and final day we took a 10min ferry ride across to a small, flat island Taketomi. What they do in the event of a tsunami I have no idea.  Perhaps as they are surrounded by other islands and reefs that they are not so much in the firing line?  My thoughts though are that they are immune to the risk & are willing to take the risk, as are millions of others who chose to live on the coastline.  We rented bicycles and despite its small size, managed to become lost trying to follow the cute-but-less-than-useful cartoon map!  Still, a fun day & some well-needed relaxing time for James who was a little stressed with work coming up to Christmas.

Biking around Taketomi island

Biking around Taketomi island

Posted in Travel in Japan | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Return to the snowy onsen

James was watching the weather forecast with great intensity around mid-December, as he was desperate for it to snow when we returned to Iwate prefecture’s Matsukawa Onsen. We first visited here in March of this year (see the blog post ‘Snowy Onsen’).  This time we were with my eldest sister, mother of one of the nieces (who did make it back home safe & sound but with a suitcase full of shopping!)

The view from our room at Matsukawa onsen

The view from our room at Matsukawa onsen

The weather gods did not disappoint & we experienced snowfall while broiling in the onsen.  It was minus temperatures outside, with wind gusts & snow falling, but we had to occasionally get out of the onsen as the water was too hot!!  I was sure that I would have blisters on my feet, but aside from looking like an over-cooked lobster, there were no injuries to report.  We enjoyed a traditional kaiseki Japanese dinner in our room, along with a delicious bottle of sake which had hints of vanilla.  Amazing how they can extract such flavours from water & rice & a bit of fungus!  We’ve previously enjoyed sake which tastes like banana too.  It seems some of the other guests had also imbibed and we were approached by two Japanese gentlemen who wanted to chat to us

Waiting to make a dash for it through the blizzard to the bus

Waiting to make a dash for it through the blizzard to the bus

foreigners & find out why we were all the way up in the mountains at that particular onsen, as it’s so far from anywhere.

The following day we dressed again in our normal clothes, leaving our ryokan uniform of yukata behind, and dashed through near-blizzard conditions to the bus down to Morioka station.  Here we enjoyed oysters & sake for lunch – tempura & fried.  Oh heaven!

While in Morioka, we took a stroll around town & stumbled across a small festival where they sold ‘fish-on-a-rope’ and people were stuffing plastic bags with seaweed.  It was absolutely freezing, with an icy wind blowing, so we didn’t hang around to buy any goodies.

Big sister & I also took an organised day tour to the snow monkeys, which included a stop at Nagano’s Zenkoji Buddhist temple.  It was snowing lightly & was just magical!  We were lucky to see the arrival procession of a group of monks & were blessed by the head monk who touched our heads with her (yes, a woman!) prayer beads.  It was quiet at the monkeys & we saw many happily soaking in their hot springs, then we stopped at a hotel & enjoyed a soak in somewhat cleaner environs.  A really enjoyable few days in snowy places.

Posted in Day trips from Tokyo, Travel in Japan | Tagged , , , , , ,

Touring with teenagers

So aside from skiing, walking around gardens looking autumn leaves & trying our best to corrupt the two nieces, we also packed in quite a bit of sightseeing.  Highlights included: rabbit, rollercoaster & riding (bikes, that is!).

 Choosing which rabbit you wanted to cuddle in the rabbit cafe was quite a challenge.  So many cute bunnies of all colours & varieties, not to mention hair styles!  We settled on a Holland Lop named Beagle.  He should have been called ‘Nippy’ or ‘Poopy’ as he enjoyed nibbling on both girls arms, as well as leaving them little presents in their laps!

The rollercoaster was the infamous ‘Thunder Dolphin’.  The one that made me look like I’d glimpse hell.  The other 3 teenagers (James acts likes one anyway) enjoyed it immensely.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, but managed a kinda-normal face for the photo, so no need to waste $10 on a photo which makes me look absolutely horrendous!

Riding around Tokyo Bay was a great way to spend a fine & sunny winters day.  With just the tour guide & us 3 girls, we started in the main street of Ginza (no time for shopping this time), then a stop at Tsukiji markets & lots of short stops along the way, eventually ending up in Odaiba for lunch.  A ferry ride across the harbour brought us back to the city-side where we looped past Zenzoji & Tokyo Tower, then through Hibiya Park.  Fun!

After trying on kimonos, the girls decided that jeans were a much easier option!

 

Posted in Tokyo | Tagged , , , , ,

James’s first time skiing

James's first time on skis

James’s first time on skis

What a brave guy – taking 3 women skiing with him for his first time!  Our two nieces were desperate to try skiing and although it was early in the season, we managed a day trip to Kagura, around 3 hours by bus from Tokyo.  There was enough snow to ski, but there was not yet a base for them to groom, so we were sometimes knee-deep in powder snow!

Kagura

Kagura

 

 

 

 

James took a ski lesson while the girls & I slogged our way through the thick snow.  It wasn’t the best for us beginners, but we still had a great day and – most importantly – there were no broken bones or injuries.

The big kids playing in the dry powder snow

The big kids playing in the dry powder snow

It snowed much of the day

It snowed much of the day

Posted in Day trips from Tokyo | Tagged ,

Autumn in Tokyo

Yet again, I’m rather late with my blog posts.  Late November & early December is when autumn colour really hits Tokyo.  Most of these shots were taken at Rikugien gardens, which is madly popular for its night-time illumination of the autumn leaves.

The story behind the straw matting on the pine tree is this: the straw matting is applied in late autumn & creates a warmer & more protected environment & thus lures insects from the tree to nestle beneath it.  It’s tighter at the bottom to prevent the insects from continuing their journey onto the ground, so the little guys huddle beneath the straw during winter.  Come spring, the crafty gardener cuts off the straw matting & burns it, along with its winter visitors!

From late November until early January we had visitors almost non-stop, including our two teenage nieces.  It was fun to try to corrupt them though they’re too good to be naughty!

 

Posted in Tokyo | Tagged , , ,