A Travellerspoint blog

Japan in the Rear View Mirror

semi-overcast 24 °C

After successfully dodging an earthquake, a volcanic eruption and three typhoons in Japan, we are now in London getting battered by the remnants of Hurricane Gonzalo.
But, we still have Japan on our minds.

It was chestnut time in Japan and the hairy little critters got into everything; from cakes to sweets to savouries as well as ice cream and drinks. Newly squashed chestnuts carpeted the Nakesendo Way while freshly roasted ones were a delight…
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Noticeable in Japan are the impressive numbers of tiny cars…
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…and the complete lack of older vehicles. Japan has enforceable environmental regulations and cars that fail are shipped to Siberia and Canada where they can happily pollute for eternity without fear of the breaker’s yard, (albeit on the wrong side of the road).

Pollution of all kinds is a worry for the Japanese, and who can blame them after Fukushima, so there are anti – everything signs everywhere: some of which we couldn’t decipher…
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Almost as ubiquitous as “Don’t” signs are vending machines and, surprisingly, many of them dispense inexpensive beer and cigarettes. These machines have the latest in touch-screen technology making it easy for smartphone savvy kids to download their favourite brew or pack of smokes…
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Smoking in most public places is a no-no, so it’s surprising that restaurants, hotels and pachinko parlours were often shrouded in haze. Incidentally, the Japanese addiction to pachinko is something we simply can’t fathom. We do, however, appreciate their love of beautifully presented food…
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…even when it is mouthwatering plastic…
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Some customs you should know before visiting:
Waiters and chefs call out to welcome you when you enter a restaurant and give amazing service. But you must not tip anyone for anything – ever – and if you leave even the odd five cents in a restaurant, someone will come running after you to return it.
All toilets, public or otherwise, are free and Canadians are constantly overheard saying, “OMG! You gotta check this one out.”
No one eats or drinks on the street or public place.
No Japanese pedestrian ever crosses the road against a red light irrespective of whether or not there is any traffic in sight.
Pyjamas and/or yukatas, (traditional dressing gowns), are provided at all hotels and guests wear them to meals in the dining room – especially for breakfast.
To save you the trouble of lugging suitcases on and off trains or buses Japan has an inexpensive courier service that delivers suitcases from hotel to hotel with a speed and reliability that leaves Canadian couriers looking like absentminded snails.

So – did we love Japan? You betcha.

But now we are in our most favourite city, London. It’s not cheap; we have to fight the traffic; tips are hoped for (though not demanded as in N.America); no one wears pyjamas in the dining room; a pee almost always costs a pretty penny; and there is plenty of litter to go around. But, despite its failings, England is a magical place which is always exiting and interesting – and, for us, comforting. So now we have some family time before heading off to central Europe. We hope you will join us in a couple of weeks time as we explore the Alps and Bavaria. In the meantime, we look fondly back at Japan to wave goodbye to these cute kids…
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Sayonara Japan – we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 03:39 Archived in Japan Comments (6)

The Protruding Nail

semi-overcast 24 °C

One Japanese expression is, “The nail that sticks up should be hammered down,” and this philosophy of uniformity and orderliness permeates all aspects of daily life. There is nothing random about Japan or its people – everything in its place and a place for everything. Perfect little scenes greet us around almost every corner…
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The pagodas and temples like these at Myajima and Asakusa are beautifully maintained…
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The entrance to Tokyo station is a pristine cathedral despite the multitudes who pass through daily…
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We will miss many things when we leave Japan: the cleanliness, the incredible trains; the wonderful sights; the amazing, (humbling), hospitality, the numerous kind and generous people like Yoshie and Haru who lent us their home in Kyoto and entertained us in Tokyo. This is Yoshie tempting us with a truly enormous pear…
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Stories abound of the outrageously priced fruits in Japan, and it is true that we have seen perfectly formed, individually boxed, gift wrapped melons for $60 each. But similarly gilded lilies can be found in Harrods in London and other haunts of the mega-rich. But most Japanese today are not rich. Twenty years of stagflation coupled with the economic meltdown of 2008 has left the average wage trailing the cost of living by a wide margin.
From a tourist’s perspective Japanese prices are very reasonable – much cheaper than Canada. Entry to temples and shrines are generally free and museums and national treasures rarely cost more than $5. Even this famous Golden Pavilion in Kyoto only charges $4…
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But not everything is perfect here, some things need attention. Although Japan is still largely a cash economy few ATMs take international cards. Credit cards are generally accepted – though most terminals appear to be steam driven and, unbelievably, some stores still use the carbon paper manual machines that went out with scurvy and reel to reel tape recorders. And no one here has ever heard of handheld card readers.
Bizarrely, Japan seems years behind technologically. Train conductors in India check reservations online instantly – without physical tickets or paperwork – while the poor old Japanese still use pencils and paper. However, unlike India, neither the tickets nor any other garbage ever ends up on the train floor…
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The Japanese also seem behind when it comes to TV and the internet in hotels. If we had wifi at all in hotels it was often only in the lobbies and absolutely none of our hotels offered any English language TV.

P(ee).S. Since writing about the amazing toilets early on in our trip we have come across a whole new level of all-singing/all-dancing loos. In addition to those whose lids automatically raise and lower as you enter and leave, there are many with push button powered seat raisers and some where the inside of the bowl has artistic mood lighting. And then there are those that play the sound of a waterfall to cover embarrassing sounds, while others offer oscillating bidets that provide a most stimulating experience. (Note the instructions in braille)…
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Some toilet's bowls have built-in extractor fans that gently waft away any malodourous misadventures, and some have an environmentally friendly sink in the lid of the cistern so that you can wash your hands without wasting water as the tank refills…
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However, while saving water may be important to the Japanese it seems that they don’t have similar views when it comes to packaging. Absolutely nothing comes in a single wrapper when three will do. Every slice of bog-standard white bread comes in its own plastic pouch and the Western supermarket’s well-worn idiom “D’ya wanna bag?” has no Japanese equivalent… of course you want a bag, and a box, and wrapping paper, and a ribbon and bow, and, if your purchase might be a present then you will also be offered a gift bag – all at no extra charge. So nice …but so last century.

Posted by Hawkson 08:24 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

Off the Beaten Track in Kawagoe

sunny 26 °C

Kawagoe used to be a sleepy rural town of wooden houses, but Tokyo has so spread its wings that it is now difficult to find a seam between the two. However, many of the ancient buildings were rebuilt after the Great Kawagoe Fire of 1893 and have been well loved ever since…
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The bell tower just off the main street was built originally in 1627 and has been rebuilt several times following fires and other disasters...
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The bell is sounded to tell residents the time and its sound is so mellifluous that it has been declared one of the “100 Sound Sceneries of Japan” which must be preserved for eternity. Japan also has a register of similarly protected “Smell Sceneries” which includes the smell of fish surrounding Tsukiji market in Tokyo.

We arrived in Kawagoe to find the town being spruced up with bunting, and the streetlights and traffic lights being swung aside, in preparation for the annual festival when each district parades giant effigies through the streets on portable shrines accompanied by musicians and dancers and have mock battles with the neighbours. Here’s a scene from last year’s festival…
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But we were not here for the festival. We came to visit family and to learn some ancient Japanese skills that we can practice when we get home. First there was glass blowing…
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Jim’s soy sauce/milk jug turned out quite well for a first effort…
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And then onto the soy sauce factory. Sadly, we didn’t get to make any soy sauce because it takes two years and we only had two days, but we learned that there are only four ingredients: soy beans, salt and water. The fourth ingredient is somewhat esoteric and can neither be seen nor measured, but it is in here somewhere…
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This building and the giant lidless vats are more than two hundred years old and have never been cleaned. The roof beams and trusses are caked in centuries old grime that is alive with bacteria, (along with all manner of creepy-crawlies and small animals). The bacteria, together with insects and their droppings, fall into the slowly fermenting liquid and gradually turn it into a rich must. After a couple of years the must is strained and the resultant sauce is bottled.
Following the soy sauce tasting we were off to the sake brewery – a stainless steel palace of such pristine cleanliness that we were only allowed to peer through reinforced plate glass windows at the giant fermentation tanks. However, the sake tasting was much more fun than the soy sauce affair so we bought a couple of barrels to take home.
So, now that we can make three of Japan’s best known products we decided to visit the railway museum in nearby Omya so that Jim could take the controls of a Shinkansen…
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O.K. So what if it is made out of giant lego! We have been racing around Japan for the past month on the country’s amazing trains so it was fascinating to tour the museum to learn of the railway’s history. Interestingly, nearly all of the early trains and equipment were manufactured in Victorian England. This one was made in Leeds...
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The Railway museum was full of schoolchildren learning about trains and, while some of them seemed keen, none were quite as exited as the ones we met visiting the numerous sweetshops in Penny Candy Lane in Kawagoe – the onetime centre of Japanese sweetmaking…
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Posted by Hawkson 04:44 Archived in Japan Comments (5)

Haute-cuisine a la Japonais

sunny 26 °C

It is Thanksgiving in Canada today and all of our friends will be tucking in to turkey with all the trimmings and pumpkin pie. Typhoon Vongfon passed by us harmlessly in the night and left us with a beautiful sunny day, so we too are having a happy Thanksgiving. We hope you enjoy your feast as much as we are enjoying ours.
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All of the food in Japan has not only been amazingly good but, with a few exceptions, has been considerably cheaper than in Canada. Not every restaurant has an English menu, but almost all have window displays of plastic food – just drag your waiter outside and point…
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Noodles are an inexpensive lunchtime favourite - either hot or cold - and we’ve eaten soba, udon and ramen noodles with meat, fish or tempura. One of our most memorable lunches was a tempura of tiny fresh fish in a cute lakeside café on the shore of Lake Ashinoko. This is a typical noodle lunch costing about $8 Cdn (five GBPs ).
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We have sampled almost every kind of Japanese food, (including nato), and to say that we have eaten like emperors would be an understatement. We’ve tried it all: from the fabulous multi-course meals in the ryokan’s along the Nakesendo Way to the sashimi restaurants of Tokyo and even a perfectly cooked and beautifully presented five course haute-cuisine dinner a la francaise, (complete with western silverware and bone china), in the foothills of Fuji, This was the mouthwatering filet mignon of Black Angus beef…
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French dining is very popular and there are French bakeries everywhere, many of them employing Gallic bakers using equipment and ingredients from France. However, apart from some fabulous baguettes, croissants and pain au raisin, we have stuck to local dishes throughout our trip. Here’s a raw mackerel getting a quick singe…
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Many dishes are served raw or cold. For example, sashimi is raw fish served in numerous delightful ways and everyone knows sushi – bite-sized rice balls with raw fish and vegetables frequently wrapped in nori, (seaweed). Here it is often delivered on a conveyor belt…just grab plates as they pass by and the waitress will add up your bill at the end. Different coloured plates denote prices so be careful if you are colour blind – it’s easy to get carried away and rack up a hefty tab.

Yakatori are individually priced barbecued kebabs which, like sushi, can easily lead to overindulgence – especially if you eat your friends’ skewers as well as your own, (and who can blame us when they are this tempting).
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Shabu-shabu consists of meat, fish and vegetables that you boil yourself at the table, while at a yuba restaurant every course contains tofu in one form or another.
Okonomyaki is a specialty in Hirioshima and consists of vegetables, noodles and a choice of meats, fish and other goodies fried between two thin pancakes on a hot table in front of you. Here’s ours on the griddle…
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And this is a selection of colourful pickles – some of which are served with every meal…
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The Japanese are not big on deserts, but the ones they serve can be stunningly beautiful in their simplicity. This is cream caramel a la Japonais...
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You may have a thousand reasons for wanting to visit Japan but, whatever they are, make sure that you add food to the list – it is truly wonderful.

Posted by Hawkson 05:47 Archived in Japan Comments (6)

A Tourist’s Day in Tokyo

semi-overcast 23 °C

Three o’clock in the morning and crowds of bleary-eyed foreigners queue in the dark for a visitor’s ticket to the 5am auction at the Tsukiji fish market.We might have joined them, but we figured that a): We wouldn’t have a clue what was going on and might inadvertently snag a 500lb bluefin tuna for more than the $1.76 million US dollars paid last year, and b): the fish would still be fresh when the market opens to lay-a-beds and the hoi-polloi at nine...
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We have never previously seen such a plethora of piscatorial provisions…
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Everything from minute minnows to colossal crustaceans and even deadly blowfish…
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But by ten o’clock we are all fished out so we give the sashimi joints a miss. Actually we would happily eat raw fish for breakfast, as is customary for market-goers, but it is the weekend and the restaurant line-ups are so long we would be lucky to get in before lunch.

Eleven am and we stop by the official headquarters of Pokemon, the inexplicably successful Japanese game/toy/movie fad cleverly marketed by Nintendo. There are line-ups here too, but we manage to get out with enough money left for some noodles and rice at 12.
By one o’clock we head across the city to the science museum where we run into a park full of youngsters dressed as characters from manga comics…
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Goodness knows who these girls are pretending to be, but we rush on. We have a two o’clock appointment with Asimo the robot …
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Asimo is getting on a bit now, he’s 14 to be precise, but he still wows us with his moves. And then to the nearby beach for an ice-cream at 3pm. before taking an afternoon cruise on the River Sumida offering fabulous views of the city…
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Just as the sun is setting at five the Skytree, the second tallest structure in the world, soars into the sky the above us…
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And its image turns golden in the fading light…
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At 7 we finally get to eat the fabulous sushi, sashimi and tempura…
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By nine we fall asleep after another hard day’s sightseeing, thanks to our wonderful local guide Yoshie, knowing that we have to get up early and do it all again tomorrow…Phew!

Posted by Hawkson 21:48 Archived in Japan Comments (4)

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