Tuesday, June 28, 2016 | Japan – Honshū | Win & Petra
IN THE LAND OF SMILES
FASCINATING AND EYTRAORDINARY JAPAN
For many years I (Petra) have been dreaming of visiting Japan. Maybe it is the many stories about charming Geishas, mystic tea ceremonies and picturesque gardens that fire my imagination and arouse my curiosity.
Finally at the end of May Win and I fly to Osaka where we start our tour on the main island Honshū via Kyoto, Nara, Kanazawa and Takayama right up to Tokyo. We will have slim three weeks to get a first glim of this exceptional pacific island and to see the highest mountain of Japan, vulcano Fujisan.
We really expect a lot and get much more at the end.
We get to know a country that treats us with kindness, rich tradition, high level of modernity and a lot of specifics. We are completely stunned.
The most impressing thing we experienced you want to know? We even can’t say. There are so many things that we are impressed by. The respectfulness of others, kindness and helpfulness in every situation, trains on schedule, delicious food, beautiful landscapes, petite Japanese women with elegant kimonos, scrupulous cleanliness or the habit of taking a bath frequently and very hot. Japan is a big thing for all of your senses.
THINGS LOOK DIFFERENT
At first our eyes have to get used to the more plain architecture of office towers and houses, a unspectacular play of white, beige, grey and brown colors. The summery sticky hot climate in June, often cloudy and 26 °C during the day, emphasizes the colorlessness of houses and streets with its milky light.
In all places we find a plain use of forms, if it is the restaurant, the guest room of our ryokan (traditional Japanese guest house) or the shops. Only the fancy neon lights of the shopping and entertainment districts in Osaka, Kyoto or Tokyo show off. Apart from this pomp and showing are not a Japanese thing. But yet on tableware, paintings, gardens, kimonos, shrines and temples we can find rich colorfulness and ornamental art, never too much and always very elegant.
Like pearls on a string – fine dining restaurants along the banks of Asanogawa River in Kanazawa
Plain and simple is the name of the game as long it is not about geishas, culinary delicacies or traditional kimonos. In these sectors, contrary to architecture, Japanese cultivate a passion for details. They thoroughly keep filigree pins and hair clips for a geisha hairstyle in cases handmade with love. A variety of colorful pans and plates flatter the guest during a Japanese multi-course dinner, each bite elaborate. Putting on a festive kimono with all its accessories and details can take up to two hours (the previous bathing ceremony and make-up not included).
At one time in the evening in the famous geisha neighborhood Gion in Kyoto we encounter a real geisha (Person of Art). Swathed in a magnificient silky kimono she trips home on her geta (wooden sandals with high bottoms) from an official appointment at the tea house and disappears quickly through the sliding doors of her geisha house. I’m highly impressed and filled with reverence unable to take a picture. What an unique and very special moment. (Maybe just some girlish fantasies?)
In Gion a geisha is called ”geiko” which is to say ”Woman of Art”. They never are prostitutes as they are often mistaken for. These young women are rather eminently respectable entertainers well educated in traditional arts like dancing, singing, reciting of haikus, ikebana and calligraphy. They get booked by their mostly rich clients for entertainment at the tea house or at a restaurant.
It’s extremly popular among tourists to rent a complete geisha outfit and a photo session on top
ONE HOTEL IS NOT LIKE ANOTHER
It also is the beautiful city of Kyoto where we visit our first ryokan. This traditional Japanese guest house is an absolute must when visiting Japan because it is typical of Japan and it is a really outstanding experience.
We’ve read a lot about it before and learned that you have to follow some important rules which also is Japan-like and which can be very unfamiliar to Europeans. It starts with exchanging your brown shoes for slippers at the entrance. This is followed by wearing a cozy yukata (cotton kimono) during your whole stay and might not end with sitting on tatami mats for hours during the multi-course dinner and breakfast.
We feel abducted to another planet in a pleasing manner and are amazed at the dedication we are nourished and cherished with. Protected from hustle and bustle our only duty is to find rest and relaxation.
The small wooden tub filled to brimming with hot water is waiting for us. Get a deep rest with an extensive bath before dinner. Taking a hot bath, minimum 40 °C, is a daily routine of Japanese families. One after another the members of the family take a bath in the same water, which is not replaced between. Therefore it is very important to scrub your body with soap and rinse thoroughly with clear water outside the tub and before climbing into it. No residual of soap is allowed in the water. It would be considered unhygienic.
Later Saya perfectly serves a multi-course elaborated dinner at our room, on knees and with many bows. Her silky kimono rustles on the tatami mats and each extraordinary course she serves is accompanied by her explanations.
My female soul starts getting nervous with the realization that the man is always served first. It is common in Japan, ”ladies first” is no choice. That’s why Saya also places the pot with rice and the pot with tea next to me because it is me who has to serve the husband and not the opposite. Win very much enjoys this fact and I try to keep calm. The delightful dishes are a treat for one’s taste buds and for one’s eyes and let me easily accept the new hierarchy.
To see Win sitting in front of the tokonama is perfect. It is always the most important person in the room who is sitting next to the corner with the beautiful scroll painting to make sure the artistic synthesis attains perfection. And my humble self has the joy to watch this perfect arrangement the whole evening. It not even matters that Win proudly wears the yukata for women and I wear the one for men. Not until I ask Saya if we are nicely dressed, she let us know about our gaffe by giving us a charming smile and treating it with nonchalance.
The whole event may be very important but still it isn’t deadly serious. We have a good laugh together with Saya and she is visibly amused when we ask her if the leave wrapped around the shrimp can be eaten or not.
WE GO AHEAD
On our journey we travel by city trains and express trains of the JR-line, use busses and the metro to get from A to B in megapolises like Osaka or Tokyo. We are pleasantly surprised how well organized everything works and how easily we find our way.
Even the trip with our rental car and with left-hand traffic from Nagoya to Kawaguchiko and to the five lakes of Fuji (Yamanashi region) we can manage easily. Retrospectively we regret that we didn’t go to Tokyo by car on one hand. On the other hand we now get the chance to ride the famous Shinkansen from Nagoya to Tokyo. If we will make 300 km/h?
Now and then we wonder if we could travel Japan with our truck. The answer is yes and no. The freeways and A-roads are as big as in Europe and of course they do run 40 tons trucks in Japan. Dennoch we feel that our truck would be too big and too loud for this country. Traffic seems to be more quiet as it is in Europe and the roads appear smaller and narrower than our truck demands. And thinking of the rich overhead wires we raise doubts to fit underneath with our vehicle.
DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH
Often people are reserved of traveling Japan due to the question of language barriers. English is no common language in Japan they often say. This is the reason why I startet Japanese lessons six years ago and learned quite a lot within one and a half years (theoretically!).
Unfortunately I stopped taking lessons and kept only a few but very helpful expressions in mind. So if we commend the meals with ”Oishii desu.” (おいしいです。– It tastes very good.) we always earn a happy smile, multiple bows and a joyful ”Ohhh – Arigatou gozaimashta.”
Despite every objection we get on well with English in every situation. And a friendly smile and ”Sumimasen” (すみません。– Excuse me, please.) always helps, in case of English exceptionally doesn’t work as we had once at a filling station in the countryside of Lake Kawaguchi. In Japan you always can build on the kindness of the people, who are always ready to help and anxious to make you feel comfortable. That’s very pleasant. Anyway traveling Japan is the easiest thing to do in the world.
During our tour in Kyoto, Nara or Kanazawa we meet a lot of school classes of all ages at the tourist attractions. They are on excursion for cultural education, decently wearing different styles of school uniforms and backpacks hanging around their knee pits. Often we get asked questions by young pupils obviously following the school task to interview tourists to improve their English skills: ”Excuse me. My name is Akira. Would you please answer some questions? Where do you come from? Which food did you try in Japan? … Thank you very much. Have a nice day!” Each of the group has to ask one question to make sure that everybody is practicing diligently.
Win and I have a lot of fun with them. It’s nice to see their enthusiasm and wholeheartedness they display and how they take courage to talking to foreign people. Once I take courage to talk to the kids Japanese in return asking their names and I’m tickled pink about daring to do something really crazy. Am I worth to get a reward of merit?
Later we learn that English lessons are common at Japanese schools for many years focussed on literary education not on everyday language. Now there is a process of change which becomes visible with the pupils talking to foreign visitors and practicing English.
FOOD FOR BODY AND SOUL
To treat yourself to some fine food in Japan it’s very helpful to have a thing for fish and rice. You always get rice, for breakfast, as a snack, for lunch and dinner and even sweets are based on rice like Daifuku or Mochi. And fish is second most common.
We love fine dining – especially Win – and we#re not too shy to try everything we can get. We like even the hearty Japanese breakfast very much with several fish, fried or smoked, eggs of all kind and new to us and with pickled vegetables. (Even though I’m longing for a simple white toast with jam after a while.)
In Nara by accident we find the best and fastest mochi maker far and wide, as the many awards let us know. The unique rice cakes with a filling of azuki beans are our favorites if we need a sweet treat, apart from green tea soft ice cream. (This is mochi making in Nara)
Nice and fresh mochi, lukewarm rice cake, made in Nara by the fastest mochi maker
Everything we get to eat in Japan, fish or meat, soups or sweets, has a great taste. No matter if we have dinner at an elegant restaurant or if we slurp ramen soup in a fancy low-budget ramen shop for five Euro.
Just Nattō, made of fermented soy beans, is the only thing we absolutely don’t like, accepted super food aside. On the other hand when thinking of Hida Beef from Takayama we instantly go into rhapsodies about it. Never ever we tasted a velvet and tender beef like this before – raw, of course.
Never before we’ve visited that many Buddhist temples and Shintō shrines like here in Japan. Each is a master piece by itself and beautiful.
In Nara we take fortunes in hand ourselves. During a visit of a shrine we buy an Ema, a small wooden board. We write our wishes and hopes for the future on it and according to the rules hang it on the wooden pavilion of the basin for ritual cleansing. Once there is no more room left for further Emas all Emas get burned with a ceremonious fire and all the numerous wishes fatefully rise up to the sky. If this doesn’t help, nothing will.
EXPERIENCING A WORLD CULTURAL HERITAGE
Once we drive by bus from Kanazawa to Shirakawa-gō, more precisely t0 Ogimachi in Shirakawa, a picturesque village in the Tōkai-Hokuriku region of the Japanese Alps. 1995 this village which ist still inhabtited was nominated World Cultural Heritage by the UNESCO. Its unique archtitecture, Gasshō-zukuri, makes it worth visiting. Thatched roofs, steep up to 60 degrees which reminiscent of folded hands for prayer, are the exceptionality of its houses.
Literally the meaning of Shirakawa-gō is ”village white river”. As soon as you climbed up the hill at the end of the village and your eyes wandered the view over the village you’ll understand that this is the only possible name for it (please see image).
We feel like visiting Black Forest in Germany, this is how common the sight is. Merely the rice fields amke the difference, and the typical Japanese architecture with Shōji, the sliding doors consisting of wooden frames with muntins and translucent paper.
Rice fields instead of crop fields
One more World Culture Heritage we anticipate at Lake Kawaguchi, one of the five Fuji lakes around Mount Fuji. In Fujikawaguchiko we stay at a ryokan from which we can see Mount Fuji – that’s what the description of the hotel announces.
On our arrival and also the following two days the 3,776 meter tall volcano shows his shy character, he seems to be disappeared. Instead he hides behind a white wall of clouds and we only can trust, that we are very close to him.
If we can’t see Fuji (pronounce: Fushi) for real we at least want to get enchanted by his fabulous beauty at the local Museum of Art in Kawaguchiko. Since 2013 he is World Cultural Heritage and we can’t accept to miss him while we are here.
The third day I wake up early in the morning at 5 o’clock for no specific reason. My first thought is Fujisan and the question if he might be visible now. Et voilà – here he is showing his full glory! I’m completely thrilled to bits and wake Win to join this unique sight. We are happy – 5 o’clock in the morning! – we feel like having Christmas, birthday and a win on the lottery all at once. The whole magic lasts only two or three minutes and Fujisan again disappears behind his clouds.
Now that we are awake we take a hot bath in our private tub on the balcony and celebrate the fact that we have seen him at least for some minutes. Lucky guys we are! At that moment we don’t know that we’ll see him the next day for hours …
Fujisan – isn’t it beautiful?
WE ARE PRETTY MUCH FLABBERGASTED
Aha moments we collect with each passing minute and with several situations.
• We’re fascinated by the train attendant, who thanks with a friendly smile when clipping our tickets and turns around to the passengers before leaving the train compartment with a bow and salutation. Japanese people put emphasize on ceremonies like respectful bows for welcome and farewell or phrases like ”Sumimasen.” (すみません。– Please, excuse me.) and ”Arigatou gozaimasu.” (ありがとうございます。– Thank you very much!)
• Cleanliness also is the first priority. Everywhere somebody is sweeping or washing the floor. Streets are supernatural clean and a broom could also be a landmark for Japan. Never before we’ve seen such clean train compartments or metros. The floor is polished, not one shred of paper, no chewing gum, no brunt spot or graffiti – nothing but cleanliness. No matter what age the train is. The upholstery of the seats might be time-worn but never dirty or filthy.
• Even visiting the toilets is an event if you come across a high tech toilet instead of a squat toilet, which is fully equipped with an automatic seat lid, seat heating, warm backside douche and dryer as well as an electronic sound system to drown unpleasant side noises.
• Taking a bath achieves a completely new dimension. It’s pure pleasure in hot thermal water (onsen) and as common as brushing your teeth every day. In the morning before breakfast, in the afternoon after the excursion and in the evening before dinner or at night before going to bed – we take bathes like there’s no tomorrow and enjoy total relaxation.
• Common works like safeguarding a building site are done with greatest carefulness. The guard seems to accomplish his task with proud. No matter how often the worker comes around with his filled wheelbarrow, they first bow before each other and then the guard escorts the worker to the uploading point. There’s no danger, not for the worker, not for a pedestrian not for a vehicle.
• Don’t wonder when using a taxi. The passenger never opens or shuts the door himself. Only the driver does it via remote control and only on the side of the pedestrian way – for safety reasons.
• Safety is very important to Japanese people as we experience everyday ourselves. We always feel save and secure in each situation. We know that nobody wants to cheat us or exploit our inexperience. There is no bargain, no deceit and we don’t need to pay attention to our belongings. We like it very much.
• On one hand Japan is very friendly and well organized with everyday life. On the other hand we wonder at some preferences such as childish squeaky voices of young women, extremely noisy gambling hells with computer games or cute manga outfits of young girls in the streets of Tokyo. Kawaii – so sweet!
• Japanese love automats. There are automats for soft drinks at each corner and everywhere. From still water to green tea mixed drinks, from fruit juices to several cold coffee drinks with or without sugar, you can get everything 24 hours seven days a week. Even newspapers, ramen soup coupons, horoscopes or colorful collectibles – everything you can get automatically.
• Tsukiji fish market might be the most famous fish market in the world and it is an event in any case. In 2016 it will move to a new modern area in the Tokyo bay.
• Golden Gai in Tokyo is a small entertainment quarter of narrow alleys and tiny bars with only five guests and the barkeeper fitting in. Standing is not allowed, sitting is a duty and not every bar allows foreigners, which means ”members only” and room for regulars.
• Even gully covers are important in Japan and are a topic of special aesthetic interest. Each city has its own gully cover design. Our friend Tina told us to watch out for pretty gully covers in Japan. It’s pure joy for a designer’s heart.
We still could proceed narrating but we now leave it at that. Sayonara!
Japan is the country of details as it is illustrated by the pretty designs of gully covers of several cities. You will be surprised what you’ll get when googling images of „gully covers Japan“
PETRA ABOUT JAPAN
«I want to go there again! I think that Japan is fascinating, strange, aesthetic, contradictory, wonderful – just unique. I’m filled with wonder even in retrospect. I feel as if we have looked at a giant picture book, and we still have to get clear about what we’ve seen. I burst with impressions, want to learn more and more, and it’ll take me some time to sort every impression in my mind.»
WIN ABOUT JAPAN
«For me Japan is a country that is very easy to travel and that doesn’t become accessible everybody immediately. Behind everything that seems to be random there is an art and the pursuit of perfection. A bouquet of flowers is not just a bouquet of flowers, a bow not just a bow. Trains exact to the second, the way chopsticks are put down carefully, the tying of the obi – every action follows a precise order. It is very interesting to observe it. But to live that way, day by day, I would miss my personal space, I guess.»