Saturday, May 12, 2018

Still more Japan

For this last Japan post, I shall share some food pics, as well as funny sights and signs.

First the food. It was all so little and pretty and served on beautiful dishes. We often had multiple courses of sushi, tempura, miso soup, vegetables, rice, tofu and miscellaneous other items. Half the time I had no idea what I was eating. I loved pretty much all of it, although most things don't have a strong flavour. At one point, I was craving something more flavourful, so Dale and I found an Indian restaurant and had curry and fresh nan bread which totally hit the spot.

Little octopi on a stick - just like a cake pop!

This was an Okonomiyaki place in Hiroshima. It's a pancake with cabbage and other vegetables on top. I'd like to try this at home - it was delicious.

Cutting up a giant tuna. I thought it was a dolphin or a shark.

They love cute little English sayings on their notebooks, t-shirts, shopping bags, etc. but they don't always make sense. There are definitely a few things lost in translation.

This was the warning in the deer park. Those be vicious deer.

As you may know, vending machines are a big thing in Japan. Many vending machines sell alcohol but you're supposed to be of legal age to buy it. Because they're awesome like that, the kids here don't buy it.

This (below) is a coffee vending machine, with our adorable guide Michiko. You could choose cold or hot beverages and there's even a video screen that shows your coffee being made. I thought I had ordered a hot latte but I pressed the wrong button and a cold one appeared in the opening, complete with ice, a lid, and a straw beside it.

And here's more random stuff...
This was a scene I came across in a busy Tokyo neighbourhood. It was a photo shoot of a photo shoot (the girl with the red hair is snapping photos of the pink-haired girl).

I saw this sign in a rural Japanese garden where they grew different types of maple trees. I'm pleased that I have a maple tree named after me.

At the hotel in Kyoto, our room was on the second floor so we always took the stairs. Mostly only staff used the stairway and this was a sign posted on the wall just before you stepped into the lobby. I'm not sure exactly what it says, but I'm guessing it shows the angle at which you are supposed to bow, based on the age or importance of the guest. The deeper you bow, the more respect you are showing.

This was on a ferry on a storage chest where they stored life jackets.
Seen in a store window. I have no answers.

This was a sign in a streetcar. In any other country people would play the "internal organ disabilities" card and hog the priority seats.

I think I said at one point that I was going to talk more about the garbage and recycling situation. In hindsight, I don't have that much to say about it. Just that recycling is a very big deal and they don't have many public garbage cans because they don't want people mixing everything together. So even though public garbage cans are scarce, the streets are still spotless. It's rare to spot litter. There's no graffiti either.

In summary, Japan is awesome and I'd love to go back. That was a quick wrap-up but it's time to move on.

Sunday, May 06, 2018

More Japan

I tried really hard to keep this concise and condensed but I was not successful. I probably should have divided this up into a week's worth of posts but here it is in all its detailed glory. There are a LOT of pictures; please feel free to skim or to come back another day when I'm back to normal blogging. But Darla says she likes reading about my trips and even though I'm not entirely convinced she means it, here we go!

Thing I like about Japan

As mentioned yesterday, the customer service everywhere is incredible. It honestly looks like the staff everywhere is genuinely happy to serve you. Everyone from retail staff to street sweepers appear to take great pride in their work. You would often see a bus driver or taxi driver polishing their vehicle when they were parked. Every single vehicle was spotless, inside and out. Our guide said that one of her friends makes everyone take off their shoes when they get into her car. Jim would love it there.

Probably my favourite thing about Japan is how safe it is. Their crime rate is incredibly low. Murders are rare. You feel safe everywhere. If you lose something, it will be right where you left it. No one takes anything that's not theirs. No one locks up their bicycle either, even in downtown Tokyo. Dale was tired of me saying every time we passed unlocked bikes (which was constantly), "I can't BELIEVE they don't lock up their bikes!" It felt like heaven.

Double decker bike parking lot. Bikes were often parked on the sidewalk too with no lock.

Another piece of heaven was the heated toilet seats. Before this trip, I found the idea of sitting on a warm seat unsettling. However I quickly grew to love it. The bathrooms were almost always clean; some toilets even had self cleaning features. Every toilet had an electronic panel which intimidated me at first. There are buttons for spraying the front end, the back end, water pressure options, heated seat, and my favourite: noise to block out your bathroom sounds. Our guide explained this was because many Japanese were shy about the sounds of "doing business" so they would flush the toilet to mask the sound. That wasted a lot of water so now there's a button that you can press that just sounds like a toilet is flushing. Or sometimes the sound is of birds tweeting - you can imagine how that startled me the first time I heard it, especially since in that washroom the sound played automatically.

Things I didn't like about Japan

The pillows are too high and hard. That’s the worst thing I can think of to say. (Obviously the country has some issues that are not immediately apparent to us foreigners; discrimination against women and high suicide rates due to societal pressures are just a couple).

Cool things we did in Japan

We did a bunch of hands-on activities, which is always a hit for the group. We get an insight into local customs and traditions and our terrible technique and mediocre results always make us (and the instructors) laugh.

Sushi making: we had a class with a sushi chef who taught us how to shape the rice, top it with raw fish, and wrap it in seaweed strips.

Tea ceremony: we had a couple of tea ceremonies; one in Kyoto that we mostly observed and a more casual one in Nara where we learned to make the tea ourselves. The tea ceremony is not so much about drinking tea but more about a deep inner harmony and tranquility. Part of the ritual involves admiring your tea cup when you are finished and appreciating the beauty of objects around you. I like that - just being still and reflecting and finding peace in the moment. You can read more about the meaning of tea ceremonies here.

Making plastic food: At the entrance of every restaurant is a display of plastic food models to show what dishes are served there. We also visited a section of Tokyo where you can buy plastic food in different forms, including iPhone cases:

As you can see, they're very realistic looking. So one afternoon, we had a food-making workshop. Half of the group crowded into a little shop and the other half walked a block or two to the shop owner's home, where we all learned to make a plastic tart. This was funny for several reasons. First of all, it was one of our very first days of the tour and not everyone knew that showcasing plastic food in restaurants was a thing. Secondly, our guide did not explain this activity very clearly in advance so several people hadn't eaten lunch because they thought we were preparing real food. Third, it was sort of silly and seemed like an activity for kids. But sometimes silly is good. There was a lot of laughter. It was hilarious watching retired businessmen try to make the perfect "whipped cream" and selecting little fake fruits to put on top.

The finished products

Another memorable moment that happened there was when one of the guys in our group asked me to tell the instructor (who didn't speak English) that we wanted to come work for him. Apparently Dale had told everyone that I could speak Japanese. And sure, if you want me to say good morning or thank you in Japanese, I'm your girl. But that's about it. So without thinking, I said to the instructor - loud and slow: "WE WANT TO WORK FOR YOU!" Everyone was howling with laughter. One woman said, "Huh. I think I'm beginning to understand Japanese." I was teased about that for the rest of the trip, but it's Dale's fault because he greatly exaggerated my linguistic abilities.

Calligraphy: We went to a rural village and spent half a day in "school." It was an beautiful old wooden elementary school, with local volunteers who taught us calligraphy and some other stuff. In the past, they've only hosted Japanese groups; we were their first foreign group ever and they treated us like royalty. They were beaming from ear to ear the whole time and took many pictures of us. They served us a delicious traditional school  lunch. When we left, they followed us to the bus and waved until we were out of sight.

Sumo: This was one of the highlights for many people. This was one of "Jack's" special requests and wasn't a common tourist attraction. Our guide had never even been there before. We were greeted outside by a sumo wrestler and some staff waving American flags (when someone mentioned we were actually Canadian, they were mortified at their error - the tour company that organized the tour is based in the US, so they assumed we were American. When we left at the end, they were waving Canadian flags.). We watched a sumo demonstration and learned the rules and ceremonial aspects of a match.

Then they asked for volunteers from the group to get in on the wrestling action. This was the one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. One quiet, mild-mannered older lady in our group volunteered (she got to wear a sumo suit while the men who volunteered had to wear the sumo “diaper” thing) which took us all totally by surprise and was hilarious.

I feel skinny
Feeding deer: When I read the itinerary, I was unimpressed with a visit to a park where you can see deer. We have deer walking down our street sometimes; I saw one on Wellington earlier this week. Big deal. But I soon realized that this was a whole different level of deer. This park had 1200 deer. You could buy crackers to feed them. You were supposed to bow to the deer, they bow back twice, and then you give them the cracker. When they're done, you wave your arms to show the deer you've got no more food and they walk away. However, that worked fine when there was just one deer around. But sometimes the deer would all come running when they saw food and herd mentality took over. It was hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Turns out the deer there are a little different than Winnipeg deer and they BITE! Dale got bitten on the butt and I got bitten on the leg. You could see teeth marks, which later turned into a bruise. I didn't enjoy that. I did enjoy watching others get mobbed or bitten though.

Good deer:

Bad deer:

Onsen/hot spring bath: We stayed at a traditional Japanese inn that had an onsen. This was an excellent opportunity for me to bathe naked with my fellow female group members, which is something I've never wanted to do. You soap and rinse off before getting in the very hot water. Swimsuits or towels are not allowed. So yeah. That was something. Actually it wasn't nearly as intimidating as I thought it would be. I have no photos to share of that activity.

Mazda factory: We went to Mazda headquarters in Hiroshima and got a guided tour of their museum as well as a visit to the assembly line floor. It was super interesting to see the cars being pieced together by both machines and humans. We couldn't take photos in there which was too bad.

Bamboo forest: I really liked the bamboo forest. Speaking of forests, someone sent me this article about the benefits of "forest-bathing" which is just a fancy term for spending time in nature. This is my goal this summer.

Speaking of trees, we purposely planned the trip around cherry blossom season. This is big in Japan and they have lots of places you can go and view the blossoms. Unfortunately, the blooms came earlier than predicted this year. We did see a few blossoming trees here and there but it's a little disappointing when you came to see this: (photo is from the internet)

But get this:

Truth be told, I was still pretty excited to see green trees rather than the bare brown branches of home. And because the blossoms were done, it wasn't nearly as crowded.

We did so many things I can't even mention them all. We saw temples, shrines, museums, art galleries (we saw Monet's famous Water Lilies painting), castles, gardens, famous neighbourhoods and so much more. Here are a few miscellaneous pictures.

Geisha in Kyoto's Gion district (actually she's probably a geiko or maiko - there are ways to tell the difference but I don't know them)

Dale getting interviewed for a TV show. They asked him how he felt about people wearing masks (a lot of people wear surgical masks to protect themselves from germs and/or pollution). 
After seeing many beautiful Japanese gardens, I have big goals for our backyard.
The Sky Tree in Tokyo

Below is one of the busiest intersections in the world. Up to 2500 people cross this intersection at a time. (Shibuya, Tokyo). You can watch a video here. Near this intersection, we saw a statue of Hachiko, the most loyal dog in the world. You can read about that here. I know, I'm being lazy and just directing you elsewhere. This is just getting really long - I'm sorry!

Random car picture for Jim. I have more.

We saw these little go-karts three or four times in different areas of Tokyo. I'm not sure what the point was. Edit: I learned you can dress as your favourite super hero and rent these go-karts for a ride. As Dan says in the comments, I can't imagine: a) who would want to drive these in Tokyo traffic; and b) who would let them!

My highlights

Mount Fuji was something I'll always remember. We took a bus from Tokyo to the Mt. Fuji area. While we were enjoying the scenery of farms and hills and little towns, someone on the bus caught the first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. There were literally gasps as we all saw it for the first time. It looked so dramatic sticking up way above the other hills with its snow-capped peak. It was so beautiful from every angle. We were very lucky to have clear weather; I think our guide says we only had a 30% chance of seeing Mt Fuji clearly due to clouds, "China dust" (as they call pollution!), etc.

Taken through the bus window.
We took a tramway up a nearby hill for closer views of Mt. Fuji. It was incredibly windy at the top; I don't think I've ever experienced wind like that. It was insane. There were clouds moving at crazy speeds so we all had to snap pics at exactly the right moment.

We spent the night at a traditional Japanese inn with amazing views. The sky cleared up and we were able to see the mountain very clearly. 

The inn we stayed at was the one with the onsen. We slept on mattresses on the floor. Most people were pretty happy to be back in beds the next night.

We had a delicious shabu-shabu dinner at the inn ... there's a pot of boiling water in the middle of the table and you add vegetables and thin slices of beef to cook them. We all ate in kimonos provided by the hotel. Good times!

Another highlight was Hiroshima. We went to the peace museum and saw a few different memorials around the area where the atomic bomb was dropped in 1946. The museum was so well done and I found it very moving. I could have spent hours there.

This building is one of the few that somewhat survived the bomb. All the wooden buildings within a large circumference were flattened, but a few concrete buildings remained. As a reminder of the devastation, this building has never been torn down or fixed.

We also saw the Children's Peace Monument in honour of a young girl named Sadako, who folded hundreds of origami paper cranes in the hopes that she would be cured of leukaemia caused by the bomb. Our guide helped us make paper cranes the day before to place at the memorial.

It was pretty emotional and the whole experience was very sobering to see the devastation that is caused by nuclear weapons. Our guide didn't lay blame and told us that Japan had made mistakes, but was very passionate about educating people on the devastation caused by the atomic bombs. The words on the memorial were powerful: "Let all the souls here rest in peace, for we shall not repeat the evil."

I don't want to end on a sombre note, so here's one of me & Dale on a ferry to a shrine on an island. We came home with several pictures of us together which I'm sure our kids will appreciate one day when they want to put together a slide show for our 50th anniversary. (Kids! Use the one of us with the sumo guy!)

Oh, here's also one that shows what we liked to do when we finally got back to our hotel room at the end of a busy day ... backgammon, a beverage, and a banana with peanut butter. Chocolate was often involved as well. You gotta enjoy the simple things in life, no matter where you are!

We started our journey home from Osaka. The square piece of land in the ocean on the left is the Osaka airport, connected to land by a long causeway.

It was a long day of travelling but I didn't find it that bad. But there's nothing like dropping into your own bed when you get home. I was (and still am) very happy to be home, but I'd go back to Japan in a second. It definitely has a special place in my heart.

Be warned there will probably be one more Japan post. Thanks for sticking with me (or skipping) to the end.