© 2014 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
Official Name: Nippon-koku or Nihon-koku ([the] State of Japan); Capital: Tokyo; Language: Japanese (nihongo); Country Code: JP; Currency: Yen (¥ or JPY)
I've had at least a dozen trips to Japan, with more on the horizon. Apart from the fact that I'm allergic to shellfish, pretty much everything else in that country agrees with me.
[Diary] For those with a yen (pun intended) for Japanese food, the in-flight Business-Class menu had the Washoku Zen selection: appetizers of crabmeat in layered eggs, salmon temari, and burdock wrapped in glazed beef, shrimp with fish eggs, seared tuna with wasabi dressing, somen noodles and simmered shiitake mushrooms. The main course consisted of broiled sea bass saikyo yaki, shimeji mushroom, ginkgo nut, simmered bamboo shoot, carrot flower served with steamed rice and Japanese pickled vegetables. Naturally, green tea was served and hashi (chopsticks) were provided. Like most Japanese meals, it looked very attractive.
It was at least 10 years since I last spent any real time learning basic Japanese, so I pulled out my introductory book, and refreshed my memory on some of the basics. Over the years, I have found that one of the most useful nihongo no tango (Japanese words) is wakarimasu (I understand) and its opposite wakarimasen (I don't understand). After dabbling in European languages, I must say I found Japanese quite attractive as it has no articles, no plurals, no verb conjugation, the verb comes at the end, and the addition of one suffix to the verb negates the statement while another makes it a question. Of course, as easy as the grammar and pronunciation are, the language is made very complicated with regards to writing and reading.
From a separate trip:
[Diary] I boarded the giant Airbus A380 through the front door of the main level. It was my first time on this behemoth, so I wanted to see how it was configured. It has 2 full levels with the upper deck having a handful of First-Class suites and 120-odd Business-Class suites, with ramps from the main deck at the front and rear. A separate boarding ramp served the upstairs only, to streamline the boarding process. The main deck has 425 Economy seats configured 3+4+3 across, starting at Row 50 at the front. Two ramps were used to board this level. I was in Seat 50C, first row, bulkhead with room to put at least one leg out in the aisle into the galley space in front. The cockpit is midway between the main and upper levels and is reached by 4 steps just in front of me. As far as I could see, the cockpit could accommodate up to 4 people. As you might imagine, it takes quite a while to load something that big, but finally we taxied way out from the terminal, and Flight LH710 was on its way, non-stop Frankfurt to Tokyo, 7 time zones and 11:30-hours flying time to the east. We headed up over Poland, Lithuania, across Russia, Mongolia, a bit of China, and South Korea, before landing at Tokyo International Narita (NRT).
A few words about life in a ryokan (inn): Each time on arrival, one is handed a pair of slippers, which one puts on right then and there while one's street shoes are placed in rows against a wall, on a shelf, or in some sort of unsecured storage space. While some inns have slippers of different sizes, others don't, in which case, very tall/big people like me (size 13 or metric 44 shoes) look a little odd in Asian feet-size footwear. These house slippers can only be worn in the inn's common areas. They are not to be worn in one's room or in a toilet. Each toilet has its own pair of slippers, which all users share. One does not wear any footwear in one's room, as one is walking on tatami (rice-stalk) mats. (This situation is replicated in some Japanese restaurants. That is, one leaves one's street shoes in the entrance area and wears slippers in the restaurant itself.)
My room had a narrow, short passage with hardwood floors, so one could wear slippers there. To the left was a western-style toilet and vanity cabinet; however, the sink was at the height for people no taller than five feet! Toiletries and a hair dryer were provided. Although the commode looked quite familiar, one side had an armrest containing quite a number of buttons to control various options. The best I can say is never trust a toilet that plugs into an electric outlet! To the right of the passage was the bathroom. The tub was very deep and nowhere near full-person length. In fact, it was a tub for soaking after one has soaped and washed oneself thoroughly while sitting on the very small, short stool on the floor. A hand-held shower is provided for that purpose. Putting soap or shampoo in the bath is a definite NO-NO, as soaking water is intended to be shared by others. However, as mine was a single room with private bathroom, no other guests or staff were policing my actions!
My room was 3 meters by 6 meters, and as a tatami mat is 1x3 meters in size, the room was six mats in size. In an alcove, there was a small fridge, a tea/coffee maker, and TV. On the floor sat a low table with chair, a lacquered tray set with teacup and a pastry, plus a thermos of boiling water to make green or black tea, which was provided in teabags. As I had arrived in the evening, the bedding had been taken out of the storage behind some rice paper screen doors along one wall, and placed on the floor. It consisted of a thick pad with a thinner one on top, and a bottom sheet. A soft, fluffy one-piece cover lay on top. In a small floor-to-ceiling closet hung a yukata, and in a wicker basket at the bottom lay a western-size bath towel and the obi (sash) for the yukata.
Now, regarding tying the obi, it is important to remember that the left side of the yukata must be wrapped over top of the right side. The only time the sides are wrapped right-over-left is when preparing a body for a funeral. So unless one wants to be seen as a "dead man walking", left goes over right!
It's a big and busy city, and I've seen and done at lot of the things on offer. Here are just a few, small extracts from my diaries, both involving food:
[Diary] I found a curry house and sat at a counter. The gaijin's (foreigner's) "Menu Book" was in English, Arabic, Russian, Portuguese, Korean, and Chinese. Interestingly, a separate sheet written only in Japanese had some sort of Dutch specials and had numerous pictures of windmills and tulips. The menu had this "Order by the numbers" approach. Choose pork or beef; 200, 300, or 400 grams of boiled rice; and choose the spice level from -1 to 10, with 0 being normal. I chose level 2 "For a little extra stimulation", the menu said. Level 5 was "Not for the faint-hearted. Consider the consequences." The food came quite quickly and perspiration soon appeared on my brow. I managed to neutralize the heat with some Coke.
[Diary] We sat at 2 long tables each of which had several gas-fired hotplates built in. I sat in front of one, so became a designated cook. Each group was given a large platter of meat and vegetables, and another with shredded cabbage and noodles. We started off with pieces of steak, spicy sausage, lobster, and scallops with red peppers, mushrooms, and eggplant, over which we poured a variety of sauces. Towards the end, we added the cabbage and noodles. Copious quantities of beer were consumed, and a great time was had by all. I sat with delegates from Japan and Korea, and I was very pleased to sit opposite the former Head-of-Delegation from Japan, who'd stepped down several years earlier. His English was decidedly British.
Yes, it's a city full of wooden temples, and what magnificent structures they are. Just go visit!
I've visited this old capital twice, both times for conferences. And, yes, the deer really do wander around the open park among the tourists.
[Diary] A Finnish conference delegate and I set off on a walking tour of the area and its temples, shrines and gardens. Early afternoon, we stopped in at a small restaurant run by a tiny grandmother, to get some lunch. She was ever so happy to have us as guests. I had a large bowl of soba noodles with vegetables. She was fascinated by my height and the size of my boots, especially when she and I put our feet alongside each other. We chose our meal from the plastic models in the window.
Outside the park, we walked down the long, main street shopping area. I was looking to buy a woolen cap to replace the one I'd accidentally left on the train. I finally found one at a most unexpected place, a convenience store. Then, as I was quite low on yen, I went in search of a cash machine. I tried at least six without luck. One was closed for servicing, three accepted cards only issued in Japan, and the rest had only Japanese instructions, and I couldn't figure out how to work them. Finally, I found a Post Office, and its machine was ever so happy to be of service, so I withdrew twice as much as I'd initially planned just in case I had trouble finding another one later in the week. Armed with ¥40,000 (US$400), I was ready to go again.
At the station, I got my ticket for the 4:16 pm shinkansen (Bullet Train). To my right sat a middle-aged woman who read much of the way. To my left was an older man, a professor of Economics in Kyoto. He spoke very good English and had obtained his Ph. D in the U.S. many years ago. He had just bought two English-language magazines to read en-route. Both had President-elect Obama on the cover, and when I told him I'd volunteered for Obama during the recent  elections, he stood up, bowed, grabbed my hand, shook it vigorously, and smiled. We had some great conversation and exchanged business cards.
Late in 2000, I stayed with Harusa, a woman I'd hosted the year before when she was in the US for three months of English, American culture, and customer-service training. She lived with her family in the mountains of Hyogo Prefecture. She and her husband commuted to Osaka each day to work.
I spent three nights with them over a weekend during which time I offered to cook a meal. Harusa's mother, a widow who lived with her, ran the house. When Harusa translated for her my offer, the mother couldn't stop smiling. A man in the kitchen! Helping with domestic work! Whatever next! Anyway, she was gracious enough to let me in her kitchen, where I made Mexican food for the family and friends who lived nearby. It took a while for us to find all the ingredients and it wasn't until I found a large, international supermarket that I spied "Old El Paso" Mexican food kits containing all the ingredients. When it came time to cook, the three women appeared in their aprons, headscarves, and pads and pencils eager and ready to write down the recipe, so they might reproduce it. However, each time they asked me "How much?", "How long?", and so forth, I told them I just made it up as I went, and I never used recipes. They didn't understand that at all, so put away their pads and just watched.
The visit to the Atomic Bomb museum and dome was very sobering, especially when at the entrance the ticket sign said that survivors of the blast were admitted free!
A highlight of being in that general area was a day-trip to the famous shrine at Miyajima.
After Tokyo, this is my second-most visited place in Japan.
We first met the Fukushima family when they hosted us in 1994. Since then, my family has hosted them numerous times, and vice versa. Most times I'm in Tokyo, I manage to make a day trip to see them or to stay for several days.
Misa teaches private English classes to children of various ages, and we help. My specialty is to teach them to play the card game Uno where we work on basic vocabulary regarding colors and numbers. Her husband, Kaz, and I like to go hiking.
[Diary] We drove to a nice summer house and grounds formerly used by Emperor Hirohito. The grounds ran down to the sea at Sagami Bay, which was a great place for collecting marine specimens. The emperor was an avid marine biologist, and we visited an interesting marine museum there.
[Diary] … We walked to a large shrine complex nearby. The streets were crowded with cars and people. In a small building near the shrine, a wedding was taking place, so we stopped to watch. The bride had a large white headdress and a young female assistant to the Shinto priest was performing some sort of ceremony. It was the day to celebrate 3-, 5- and 7-year-old boys and girls, so many young girls were dressed in kimonos and the boys in fancy clothes. I got some great photos.
[Diary] … Around noon, we all left to go out for lunch at a sushi restaurant. We sat in a large booth and a narrow conveyor belt delivered plates of food. Each plate cost ¥105. Each booth had a touch-sensitive flat-panel screen through which one could place custom orders; these were then delivered by a computer-controlled tray that ran above the belt. We ordered a number of plates and they came directly to our booth. Once we had taken the plates, we pressed a button and the tray returned empty to the kitchen. Each booth had a standard set of things: a box of chopsticks, toothpicks, wet towels, soy sauce, packets of wasabi, a large box containing slices of fresh ginger, and sweet and sour sauce (to be eaten with eel). We each placed a small spoon of powdered green tea in our cups and filled them from a boiling water spigot mounted on our table. We ate miso soup with seaweed, a variety of fish and seafood sushi, and rice with soy sauce. Once we were done, we summoned the waitress by pressing a button on our screen, she counted the empty plates, multiplied that number by 105, and, voila, we had the final bill.
[Diary] … Misa and I drove into Kamakura and visited 2 temples. The first was one of my favorites, and hers too, as it had a forest of dark green 50'-tall bamboos, along with my other favorites, moss, running water, and ferns. From there, we walked to another temple that had an English garden. We walked around that and then visited a teahouse. It had just opened and we were the first customers of the day. We took off our shoes and sat on the tatami mats looking out over a rock garden. There was no table, just a large expanse of mats. Misa ordered cold green tea with ice while I ordered hot green tea. Our server was a young woman who arrived soon after with a tray. She put it on the floor in front of Misa, bowed, and said some words. Misa also bowed and was served her tea along with a paper napkin and a sweet cookie. The process was repeated for me and my bowl of hot tea. When we were finished, the server came and went through another little ceremony before taking our empty bowls and cookie wrappers.
Fuji-san (Mount Fuji)
Although a picture is worth a 1,000 words, seeing the snow-capped Mt. Fuji in person without its ever-present weather system is a sight to behold! And I've had that pleasure a number of times.
[Diary] We headed for Hakone and the lakes district near the base of Mount Fuji. I asked my friend, Kaz, to stop, so I could take a photo of the many fishermen on the lake. I did so, and then when I turned around, there was a clear view of Mount Fuji in the distance, complete with snow cap. It was magnificent. The place where we stopped also just happened to be the site of a festival the following day, and people were setting up for it. The main event was to be archery while riding on horses, just like in the old Samurai warrior days.
We drove up Mount Fuji to the 5th Stage, which was as far as the road went. From there, one could only go on foot, and plenty of people do. This was where the snow currently ended, but we did get to walk in it some distance on one path. It was rather touristy there as you might imagine, and we bought postcards and had lunch. Apparently, at the mountain top there is a public telephone and a mailbox, so one can gets cards stamped on Mount Fuji. (Apparently, tourists climb to the top and post their letters and cards. Then some enterprising person climbs to the top, retrieves all the mail from the mailbox, and brings it back down to the Post Office.) The mountain is 3,700 meters tall, is a dormant volcano, whose crater is 800 meters across and which takes an hour to walk around. For centuries it was a sacred site (and is still considered to be by some), and women were not allowed there. The oldest recorded person to reach the summit was 102 and had climbed it many times.
The clouds rolled in soon after we arrived, and as is often the case, the mountain was hidden in its own weather system. On the drive back down we stopped off for a hike into some old and steep lava fields.
We drove back to Kamakura through the countryside. There was a lot of traffic and it took many hours, but it was well worth it. (The reason for the traffic was that this was a long weekend, after which Golden Week was to start. During this week many business are closed as are the schools, so it was a national holiday week.)
During a separate trip to the area:
[Diary] Kaz had booked a cabin in the woods near Hakone. We checked in, unloaded our gear, and went for a good long walk down by the lake before the sun set. There were plenty of trees with lots of colorful foliage, especially Japanese maples. It was a good physical workout, so on our return, we went to the hot baths. It was my first time at such a place, so I had to learn the rules. The lady at the counter spoke fluent English with an American accent. (She'd lived in California and New York City.) She gave me a key in a rubber pouch that strapped to my wrist. At the entrance to the change room, I took off my boots and placed them in small shoe locker, taking the key with me. That key I stored in a clothes locker along with all my clothes. I was issued a heavy-duty face washer and a mid-size towel. So naked I got, locked the locker with my first key, and off we went. Although there was a small indoor pool, Kaz said he was going to the outside one. So along I went. The pool was in the shape of a circle with a diameter of 15 feet. Down the middle was a tall wall that divided the men's' and women's' sections. The water was reasonably warm but not too hot and about 2–3 feet deep. A very big wooden roof covered us but the sides were open to the cold evening. Steam rose from the water as we lay back and soaked with hot towels on our heads.
I've had one trip to Japan's northern-most island. I knew almost nothing about that island before I arrived, but soon learned that it was only occupied by the Japanese in the late 1800's. It was the first land the Japanese had that was suitable for broad-acre farming. The US provided help with that, and influenced things in other areas, such as the use of a grid system with numbered and lettered streets, and New England-style red-brick buildings.
[Diary] As I walked outside from the Sapporo main train station, it was a pleasant evening. However, soon it started to drizzle, then rain, then pour. And, for good measure, the wind blew hard, so I had to hold onto my straw hat as well as my luggage. I headed in the general direction of my ryokan (traditional Japanese inn). I asked directions of a young couple along the way, and although their English was minimal, with my very basic Japanese and their street map, we figured out I was off by a block, so I backtracked, arriving at the inn around 10 pm, local time.
The ryokan staff was very happy to see me, dripping wet as I was. I registered and the front desk clerk took my luggage, while a hostess, dressed in full kimono and those wonderful socks with toes, escorted me to my room on the second floor. Inside the main door of my room was the area to leave one's shoes and to change into house slippers. The main room measured 8 tatami (straw) mats in size. There was the usual low tea table, a TV, phone, refrigerator, and the traditional rice paper sliding screens for inner doors and on storage closets. A small, but adequate en-suite bathroom was included, but, of course, that had its own bathroom slippers—one must not wear house slippers in the toilet! The hostess gave me a towel to dry myself. She then took one look at my size, and took the yukata from my closet and replaced it with a much larger one. (A yukata is a light-weight kimono that one wears to bed. It can also be worn around the inn.) An insulated jug of iced water and another of boiling water were provided, along with a delicate piece of cake on a plate. Not being a green tea fan, and needing sugar with my tea, I did make tea, but used the black tea bags and sugar I'd brought from home.
I had a nice hot shower, then changed into my yukata, and got into my futon bed on the floor. Although I travel with my own feather pillow, I did use several Japanese pillows as extra support. They are small and stuffed full of dried rice kernels, which, although hard, can be quite comfortable. Lights out at 10:30 pm local time, more than 24 hours after I'd left my house.
[Diary] … When I went down to breakfast, the hostess welcomed me dressed in her beautiful kimono. After our bowing and pleasantries, she seated me and brought me a traditional Japanese breakfast. That included a tray with a bowl of hot miso soup, a piece of cold cooked fish, a variety of cold, pickled vegetables, the ever-present bowl of warm sticky white rice, and, of course, o-hashi (honorable chopsticks). As usual with food in Japan, it was all arranged like a piece of art, making it a shame to have to eat it.
[Diary] … My friend Yoshiyuki, whom I'd hosted several years earlier, met me at the ryokan. The sun was shining and the weather looked very promising. We drove to the Hokkaido Shinto shrine where we were very fortunate to watch a special ceremony. From there, we headed out on the main highway to Otaru, the port city an hour away. There were quite a few tour buses around, and young men were negotiating both hand- and bike-drawn rickshaw rides. The canal and warehouse district has been very nicely restored, and many flowers and art/craft stalls were along the canal. We ate lunch in a very small ramen noodle house. Mine was soy-based with pork, and mini-size, as the big ones were too big for me. Then on the street, we bought some wonderful melon-flavored ice cream. We drove along the coast a bit then up a small mountain, Mt. Tengu, which has a ski slope. At the famous glass factory, we saw many nice pieces and watched master craftsmen and their apprentices at work. Although we weren't that far up, it was pleasantly cool. We drove back along the coast.
[Diary] … It was a nice day, so I set out for the Hokkaido University, a sprawling campus started as an agricultural college in 1876. A co-founder was Dr. William Smith Clark, who founded the Massachusetts Agricultural College 10 years earlier. (Massachusetts and Hokkaido are sister states.) There were a number of gardens and museums. The current student population was about 20,000.
I've been there once, for a 3-day conference. It's quite some distance from the mainland.
[Diary] At 7 pm, I went down to a reception hosted by the Japan Standards organization. Delegates and partners sat at a number of tables socializing, and eating and drinking. There was an eclectic selection of eastern and western foods, and some divine desserts. Mid-way through, a young woman in traditional dress arrived and began playing a local stringed instrument while singing. She was accompanied on drums by another young woman dressed in a dance costume. After several songs, they were joined by a troupe of dancers in bright costumes. Each had a large drum hanging at their waist, and they sure belted out some noise. They were volunteers from the Okinawa prefecture (local government). I sat with a delegate from China, and his wife, an editor at a Chinese art institute. This was her first time traveling outside China.
[Diary] … First stop on our tour was the castle occupied by the leader of the old Kingdom of Ryukyu, which comprised Okinawa and the surrounding islands. Although quite a few of the wooden buildings had been destroyed by fire over its 500-year history, most of them had been beautifully restored. After an hour there, we moved on to the famous tunnel network dug by hand by Japanese naval forces in preparation for the Allied invasion in 1945. Many military members committed suicide there rather than be taken prisoner.
Although I'd passed through this city numerous times on the train going to Kamakura, I've only stayed in the area once, and visited it briefly two other times. It's quite close to the old international airport, Haneda (HND).
I stayed in, and attended a conference at, a hotel right near the harbor. I believe that it was the tallest building in Japan. Now at some 70 floors, it didn't seem that tall, but considering Japan is in an earthquake zone, this is the upper limit allowed for construction. As a hotel, what made it interesting was that the reception was on the fourth floor and the rooms were on the top floors, with a restaurant at the very top providing a great view over the city and harbor. From there, I got a bird's eye view of the helipads on the surrounding buildings.
During my free time, I took a local bus out to a large garden where traditional buildings from all over the country had been reconstructed as a living museum.
Each time I plan a trip to Japan, I look forward to it very much, and I've never been disappointed. One of the highlights is when I see a woman in traditional dress, complete with white-powdered face, and wooden clogs. I've found the people to be very gracious, and, initially, was pleasantly surprised to find that many people from the time of the US Occupation spoke passable English and were eager to practice it. I get the impression that interfering with someone else's stuff is just not done. Time and again, I've seen stores and private houses with valuable things left standing out in or near the street, yet no one seems to take them.
Bucket List: I have this romantic idea of spending a month staying and working on a farm where the host family has little or no English. I'm also interested in hiking with a small pack, probably around Hokkaido. And although I have never flown into the famous Kansai Airport (KIX), I'll get there eventually. It's built on an island created from earth cut from the top of a mountain, and as the soil settles, the island keeps moving. To that end, some 10,000 microprocessors are continually monitoring and using equipment to keep the terminal buildings level. The good news is that during a big earthquake in nearby Kobe, the island wobbled, but only a little bit.