Category Archives: Japan

Thankyou for your cooperation Japan

“Everything will go smoothly. You are a lucky lady.” I was told, not for the last time, by my fortune telling friend. The Japanese are very interested in fate and fortune so it was no surprise that I had my fortune told at the Tokyo National Museum on my first afternoon in Japan.

I used to be very into that sort of thing: palm reading on Blackpool Pier, horoscopes and the like, but of late I have come to understand that I make my own luck. My fate is still my fate, but I can influence it in one way or another. Still, the sentiment could do me no harm on the eve of my very big adventure around Japan.

My good fortune had begun the minute I stepped off the plane. I was collected from the airport by an English-speaking driver who took me the ‘long way’ to the hotel, giving me a quick guided tour (for free) that helped me orientate myself in that vast city. The following day I met a guide who became a friend, who showed me around the city in all its glory. I got into the cat café just before they got full and started turning people away. I saw two traditional wedding parties at the Meiji-Jingu shrine, which is rare. I managed to get a ticket to watch an act of Kabuki that evening, which was very lucky considering it was Golden Week, a very busy holiday in Japan. I even successfully navigated the chaotic looking transport system with surprising ease; I tended to arrive just in time for the next train and I didn’t get lost!

IMG_3821

My greatest difficulty was finding somewhere to eat in the evenings but after a few attempts, I’d just walk into a place and eat whatever was on offer. In this way, I got to meet some very interesting characters, like the waiter who credited Sarah Jessica Parker as his English teacher, and ate some very delicious food, even if I did have very little idea what it was I was eating. Lucky really!

My use of the Shinkansen also went well. Advanced bookings were made with ease; all the stations were clearly signposted and the trains were on time, clean and comfortable. My only problem was motion sickness from the smoothness of the ride and my tendency to gaze out of the window at the passing landscapes. Luckily, I found my old sea bands in one of the pockets of my rucksack, forgotten since Peru I think, and used them for the other journeys with great success.

My exploration of Kyoto sometimes revolved around my tendency towards accidental tourism. I hadn’t really researched it properly so I would just pick a name from the guides I had with me and go. That way I got to see the 1001 kannons at Sanjusangendo, an amazing building containing 1001 (obviously) carved statues of kannon; 11 headed, 1000 armed, thousand eyed bodhisattva, that I hadn’t even known existed 30 minutes before. I tended to arrive at temples or gardens just in time to view them before they shut and even if I got to places early, before the hordes, I often discovered amazing treasures I hadn’t anticipated, like the cloud dragon on the ceiling of part of the Tenryu-ji Temple in Arashiyama, which watches you wherever you are in the room.

IMG_4022

Places rarely disappointed me. In fact, the things I knew nothing about were often better than the sights I wanted to see. A case in point was the iconic Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I got there early, just before the hordes, and was able to experience some of its otherworldliness; something that was quickly lost with the mass arrival of coach tours. Instead, I felt the true magic of the place at Gio-ji Shrine, a moss-strewn haven of Buddhist/Shintoist tranquility that made me believe Rivendell could be a real place. It’s not an easy place to find, but sharp eyes, a good sense of direction and competent map reading skills ensured I found it. Or maybe I just got lucky!

IMG_4039

I certainly felt like I had something on my side in Hakone. Glorious weather and a happy afternoon playing in the Hakone Open Air Museum (I tend to become very childish when surrounded by art in nature) had made me count my blessings the day before. Free cheesecake for visiting Woody’s, the café next door to it, a gloriously kitsch café decorated with Toy Story memorabilia and playing the Frozen soundtrack in Japanese in the back ground, twice in one day, was certainly a lucky moment. I wasn’t sure my luck was holding though.

IMG_3888

The following day my unplanned wanderings met some roadblocks. All I wanted to do was see Mt. Fuji. The ropeway (what we could consider a cable car) route to a classic scenic view of Mt. Fuji was closed due to level 2 (out of 5) volcanic activity so I had to retrace my steps and battle with the rather confusing transport system until I reached Moto-Hakone. Convinced I had missed the only possible view of Fuji I walked along the Old Tokaido road and discovered a lovely tea house that served a tasty amazake rice drink instead. Then I caught the bus back to Moto-Hakone to try and find the second scenic viewpoint on the map. Having wasted my morning going in the wrong direction and sitting in traffic jams, I didn’t hold out much hope that I’d see the iconic mountain. So, I stopped for a street snack of corn on the cob and wandered moodily beside Lake Ashi. Then, low and behold, I rounded a corner and there was Mt. Fuji, peeking out at me from behind a fluffy wrap of clouds. As I watched, she emerged more fully and from then on, wherever I looked from, there she was, getting clearer and clearer as the afternoon progressed. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at the view, marveling at the famous shape and snowy streaks I had previously seen in paintings and drawings. Now, I was seeing them for myself. Truly a fortunate moment.

Ironically, my best view of Fuji-san came on my final train journey back to Tokyo. I managed to look up from my book at the perfect moment to see her, in almost cloudless glory, right there next to me. I glanced around the cabin to realise that no one else had noticed, I had her all to myself, and I truly considered myself blessed at that moment.

IMG_1655

In Hiroshima I discovered my hotel was right next to the Peace Park. I simply walked a short way along the river to visit the museum and visit the A-Bomb Dome. That evening I found a great little place to eat okonomiyaki, a Hiroshima specialty that is essentially a noodle pancake with layers of cabbage and seafood, and even better, got a seat at the bar where they were cooked right before me, so I could watch the chefs at work. Brilliant!

IMG_4102

My visit to Mimojima also went well. My journey to the Island was simplified by a brilliant visual breakdown provided by my hotel (lucky I asked), I walked a lovely mountain trail and saw great views of the Inland Sea before the rain came, and as I got to the bottom of the mountain the tide started to come in so I could get a clearer sense of the floating Torii Gate it is so famous for. When I’d arrived that morning the tide was out, so it, and my luck, turned while I was on the mountain. Or it may have had something to do with the lucky white cat offering I purchased at the shrine at the top of Mt. Misen!

IMG_4166

Even when my luck seemed to run out with the heavy rain in Osaka, I did manage to see the more Bladerunner style aspects of the town that I’d actually been disappointed not to find in Tokyo. Blazing neon, narrow streets and oily reflections on the stones evoked the futuristic feel I’d imagined before I visited, and thought I wouldn’t see as I got to know the real Japan.

By the time I returned to Tokyo I think I had exhausted my run of good fortune, and while nothing went wrong I had stopped finding surprises around every corner, or maybe I’d just become more used to them. But before you roll your eyes, I will say I don’t believe I actually got around Japan simply on luck. I had the support of a very good tour company whose arrangements for a self-guided tour suited me down to the ground. I also believe that the Japanese culture has evolved to enable anyone with a bit of common sense to take advantage of its fluent, organized and logical society and participate in its efficient way of life. Signs may be small and rarely translated but most of them rely on symbols that anyone can interpret. Measurements are given in time and distance so you can estimate how far you have to go. Things are logical and consistent if you think about them. I also know that travelling solo allows me to do things my way but allows me to stop, watch and learn and then go with the flow when things occur unexpectedly, so I never feel like I’ve missed out but that, actually, my adventures are bonuses instead.

So, thank you for your co-operation Japan, I came to love your quiet, well-mannered ways and found everything I wanted and more during my trip. I might not believe in luck but I do consider myself a very lucky lady.

Ryokans and Onsen – traditional Japanese spas

I sat, crossed legged, on a thin cotton cushion in shades of green that echoed the trees on the mountain outside; on a tatami rush floor; writing my blog at a low wooden table, with a Japanese tea set to my left. My walls were wood and paper; all my doors and windows were sliding, and my bed, when I made it, was a futon on the floor. I was wrapped in an enormous cotton yukata (an informal kimono) which reminded me of beech bark and blossom. All I could hear was the rush of the stream directly outside my window.

IMG_3912

Staying in one of the oldest spa ryokans in Hakone was a relaxing experience. Ichinoyu Honkan was founded in 1630 in the Edo period when Tokugawa Shoguns ruled Japan. The Hakone area was a popular resting post for warriors, where they could relax in natural spring waters to recuperate after battle. This particular ryokan has its own onsen hot springs to relax in, which were great after a day exploring the Hakone National Park.

The Japanese onsen experience is very relaxing when you know what you’re doing but for a first timer it is fraught with potential dangers. The etiquette of communal bathing is a minefield of offence for the uninitiated, although I find it’s ritualistic nature quite soothing.

Traditional onsen are communal. Years of playing hockey and going to the gym have made me immune to any embarrassment about nakedness in communal facilities. In fact, as a child I was nicknamed ‘the nutty nudist’ because I’d take my swimming costume off to go paddling at the beach! While I was aware of sideways glances, I like to think the locals were evaluating my mismatched tan lines rather than judging my muffin roll!

The correct way to then use these facilities is to rinse yourself off with warm water away from the main spa, as it is only polite, and hygienic, to rinse yourself off before entering the pure waters. Then, you can soak in the spring-fed tub for as long as you like (the water is hot and only bearable for a relatively short time) soothing way the day’s stresses and strains. Don’t ‘wash’ in the spring though. Save that for your return to the washing area, where you can avail yourself of the soaps and shampoos provided and scrub yourself down while sitting on a low wooden stool, being careful not to splash others in the process. Then, you can return to the spa tub for a further soak. (In the second ryokan I stayed in they had an outdoor tub that I made very good use of!) When you have had enough relaxation, gazing at the mountain scenery or listening to the hypnotic flow of the spring water, remove yourself from the spa area, wipe yourself down so you do not reenter the changing area sopping wet, and you’re done!

I think I got it right! The best way to learn is to do what the locals do but in an onsen I can’t sit and watch without considerable discomfort to all! Side glances in windows and carefull listening whilst averting ones eyes allowed me a sense of what to do, and often, I’d have the place to myself so I could just relax and enjoy it without causing offence.

The almost ritualistic nature of the experience means that, if you do it properly, it is quite time consuming and hypnotic. I find the same can be said when tackling traditional Japanese meals. Some of the best food I ate was made at the ryokan I stayed in. And I can safely say that I have never been so full on what appears (at first) to be such small servings of food. Often I would spend a full 30 minutes steadily grazing from the ever increasing range of tiny dishes placed before me, forcing myself to think about what I was eating and therefore enjoy it all the more. It almost became a meditation that brought me great satisfaction.

IMG_3955

A traditional Japanese meal is a bit like tapas, in that there are lots of tasty morsels on lots of different plates, spread out across the meal. The difference is that a lot of it is raw, steamed or lightly fried, it can all be eaten with rice and at least one dish is cooked in a small pot on the table, simmering away until the tea light beneath it goes out and steam is rising from the lid.

IMG_1650

I enjoyed Hida beef cooked in this manner; fish head soup (with the head and eye of a large fish staring at me while I ate it); a kind of Japanese bacon omelette; fish tempura; sashimi; bean salads; Kyoto pickles (I love pickles!) and homemade tofu. I’ve never really understood the point of tofu, and it’s incredibly difficult to eat with chopsticks as it disintegrates so easily, but the homemade variety made using local spring water was some of the creamiest and tastiest I tried. I was even given dessert, although I rarely managed the green tea mousse or sorbet that I was offered. Of course, all of this is washed down with lashings of tea. (You thought I was going to say ginger beer didn’t you? Oddly enough the Japanese love ginger beer, it’s on practically every menu, but it’s not a traditional beverage!)

IMG_3953

As a methodical eater with no sense of smell and a limited palette I normally eat one thing at a time without adding anything so that I can appreciate the texture and what little taste I can identify. But I couldn’t do that in Japan, as morsels that should be enjoyed hot would be cold by the time I got to them, if I tried to eat all the raw delicacies first (as I would normally do). So I found myself switching between pickles, exquisitely fresh, tiny squid, tofu and miso covered rice, using soy and wasabi (but not much, it’s too strong for me!) and mixing it all up together with some surprisingly tasty results. Again, I watched the other customers carefully and took cues from them, learning, along the way, that I prefer light soy and miso to dark, that bamboo and pickles and seaweed comes in many delicious forms and that raw is definitely the way to go!

By the end of each meal I was ready to sleep and would fall onto my soft, warm futon in a happy food haze. Listening to the nearby river rushing past, it didn’t take me long to pass out into a deep, dreamless sleep.

My ryokan and onsen experiences were two of my greatest pleasures in Japan; pleasures I would love to repeat.