The Land of the Rising Sun

If I may borrow some song lyrics for a moment, “they say a picture is worth a thousand words. So with these thousand words I’ll paint a picture in your mind that breaks the rule of thirds.” The picture I am going to create is my trip over Christmas to Japan. Now travelling at Christmas is not normal for my family; we stay together at home celebrating it like the majority do. This time, however, we were venturing out to the country which has been described as the closest thing to a different planet. The reason was to visit my brother and his girlfriend, who are living out there teaching English as part of the JET program.

The Golden Pavillion, Kyoto (taken by Dan Woodruff).

Before I start to describe my experience, I would like to point out a few observations in order to get them out the way. Firstly, I loved the vending machines; they are everywhere and sell a variety instant hot and cold drinks. Hot bottle lemon tea was perfect on a cold morning! Secondly, the toilets were like the ones seen on that episode of the Simpsons: all heated and with an array of buttons. Thirdly, the Japanese do get their ‘r’ and ‘l’ letters mix up, which you also do yourself in order for them to understand you. So orange juice is ‘orenji juusu’ and  oolong tea is ‘uron tea.’ Lastly, I have never spent so much time putting on and taking off shoes when entering places – never wear lace-up shoes otherwise it would take forever to get anywhere.

Perhaps unlike most people travelling to Japan, we were not to be going to Tokyo, a decision made so that we were able to see some of the country’s most cultural and traditional sights. While my brother lives in the north, in Hokkaido, we were all going to reunite in the Kansai region of southern Honshu.  After what seemed like a fairly surreal journey, we were all reunited, and we took the subway to make our way to our first destination: Osaka. We were only spending one night there, which is not really long enough to get to know the place well, but I can tell you it was full of bright lights and bustling with people, so typical of much of Asia. The main agenda for that night was food, an aspect of Japan which is very well-known and talked about, but something that you can only get a true sense of once you are there. Japanese restaurants have overtaken France in the amount of Michelin stars, and there are just so many in each city. Unlike in the West, where you will get a restaurant that is Italian or French, in Japan the restaurants will mostly specialise in one kind of dish and it is not uncommon for the Japanese, especially in Osaka, to eat in several different places in one night. We went for okonomiyaki, which can only be described as being like a savoury pancake, or an omelette, with anything you want in it – like shrimp with bonito flakes – on top.

Fighting the jetlag, our next destination was 2.5 hours north to Kinosaki, an onsen (hot-spring) town. This is a picturesque little place, free of any tall buildings, and after a wander we checked into our accommodation. We were staying in a traditional inn (ryokan) with tatami mats and futons for beds. We changed into our yukata robes, put on our geta (wooden sandals) and walked around the snow-laden town to the different bath-houses. I like to think of it as like a bar-crawl, except without alcohol, and travelling only to different onsen. We went to three, and returned feeling so refreshed and ready for dinner. Crab is a speciality here in the winter, so we kneeled down ready for our 8-course extravaganza. Along with other things, we were mainly served crab, cooked in many different ways: from raw, to boiled, to steamed along with shitake mushrooms and other vegetables.

The next day we travelled to Kyoto, where we would spend the remaining days of our trip. From the moment of arrival at the huge piece of modern architecture – the train station – I knew that Kyoto was not going to disappoint. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for a thousand years until they moved it to Tokyo in 1867, and is considered to be the cultural heart of Japan. We were lucky enough to be staying in a machiya – an old traditional town house which has been renovated – and it looked much like the ryokan we stayed in Kinosaki. Machiya have struggled to survive in modern times, so I felt privileged to stay in one. On the first night, strolling down the famous Pontocho street, we briefly caught a glimpse of a geisha passing by; we were all speechless. So one of the things that makes Kyoto so attractive is that it has an eclectic mix of old and new – people like the geisha are not out of place. There are over a dozen UNESCO world heritage sites, the majority being ancient temples with stunning Zen gardens. In one garden we saw ladies kneeling down and meticulously gardening on their knees with forks and tweezers.

So this was an unusual Christmas for me, in a different country; for example on Christmas day we went for karaoke, the popular activity for all in Japan. I even enjoyed shopping – which I try to avoid normally – picking up lots of little bits and pieces. Japan is such a clean safe country and the people are certainly amongst the politest people I have ever met. Being my second trip to Asia, Japan has further tightened my grip for the love this continent and I feel so lucky to have experienced it. It just so happens that my brother plans to stay another year – I might just have to visit again.

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