I’m on a train from suburban Fuchu heading back to my hostel in Central Tokyo at the end of a long day at the Kurayami Festival. I’m pretty much exhausted. As is always the case on Japanese trains (including the subway) there is no noise except for the sound of the train itself. People sit contained and silent with their legs together, nursing their bags on their laps. There is no, or very little, conversation and what conversation there may be is brief and whispered. It is common practice, it is on all the signs governing behaviour on public transport, and it is considered common courtesy. Any music is heard with earpieces.
So I’m happily riding along, scrolling through Facebook on my phone when I gradually become aware of music playing. My first thought is to wonder where it’s coming from. I look up. In that moment I discover it is coming from me! From my phone! I’ve clicked on a video completely without consciousness of my surroundings. The look on my face when I realise it is me that is making this noise on the train must have been priceless. I quickly shut it off. I put my hands together as in Namaste and bow my head in shame and say over and over sumimasen sumimasen sumimasen. Excuse me, I’m sorry, excuse me. Everybody laughs. The more I apologise, the more people laugh, not in a mean way, but in an entirely good-natured way.
It is one of my sweetest memories of Japan, of the kindness and good-heartedness of the people.
And speaking of trains, the Japanese have perfected the art of sleeping on trains, whether the longer rides out to the suburbs, or the metro around town. Every time I’m on a train I see people sleeping.
These two spend a while on their phones, and then eventually, inevitably, both fall asleep. I don’t know how they do it.
The Palace Moat
I’ve had a really good sleep and wake early and refreshed. I decide on an early morning walk through the gardens around the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, which is quite close to my hostel. I get there at 8.30 only to find it doesn’t open until 9. I walk a long way following the moat that surrounds the palace and gardens.
I’m aiming for the place where you can rent a rowboat on the moat, thinking that would be a fun thing to do instead. When I finally arrive at the dock I discover that it too is closed. It’s a rookie mistake. Check opening times before you set out. I’ll do better research next time. But I got a good walk out of it, and some nice early morning shots of the moat, and the lovely soft early-morning feel of the city – quiet streets, a runner here and there, one or two people walking their dogs. A different side of the high-energy intensity that is Tokyo.
The Robot Restaurant
On my very first day in Japan my lovely guide Osamu takes me to Shinjuku, an area of Tokyo I later discover is best visited at night when it shows its true colours. By chance we come upon these two lovelies
and I am smitten. I have no words. I’ve not seen anything like them anywhere. I think to myself: only the Japanese would come up with something like this, and wish I could be more erudite in explaining why I think that. Osamu encourages me to climb aboard, and takes a picture.
These well-endowed cross-eyed Robot Goddesses sit at the entrance to Tokyo’s famous Robot Restaurant, and I discover later from YouTube videos that when the restaurant is open their arms move up and down. I also discover that the show at the Robot Restaurant is a truly um, unique experience, and over-the-top in a way only the Japanese can do. It had never been on my list of places I wanted to visit but, you know, if I’m ever in Tokyo again I just might take the plunge into that flashing neon world where glittering scantily clad young women ride motor bikes, airplanes, and tanks, and eight-foot tall hulking robots shuffle in the kaleidoscopic lights. As far as I know there is nothing else quite like it anywhere in the world.
I get an email from Hellen, before I leave for Japan, asking to meet up when I’m in Tokyo. I basically email back saying who are you? I hadn’t known it but she’s been following the blog for a while. I do meet with her and she’s lovely. Hellen is a twentysomething Brazilian lawyer (married to a Brazilian Japanese man) who speaks, reads, and writes English and Portuguese, and now after several years in Japan she speaks and reads Japanese as well. I am in awe. One of the things I love about the blog, and about travel, is that I get to meet so many interesting people, including a Brazilian Japanese man who works in the hostel restaurant where I stay in Kyoto. I would never have imagined there was a Japanese Brazilian connection. But why not? All that says is that I don’t know much about Japan. Or Brazil.
Never travel without duct tape
I travel with a small backpack and a carry-on size case. The case is a spinner, meaning the four wheels spin in all directions. So I’m trundling my case along in the cavernous Kanazawa Station. I frequently spin it from one side to the other to give the pushing arm a rest. So yeah, next spin to the opposite side I miss catching it and crash! My case splats on the hard floor. I hear a crack. I don’t even look at it. I pick the case up and carry on. Later when I arrive at my destination in Shirakawa-gō I have a look at it. One of the wheels is almost detached from the case. The only saving grace is that it is broken off in such a way that I can strap it back into place with duct tape. And I have duct tape. In the past I’ve travelled with a good portion of it wrapped around a pencil. This time I have it wrapped around an empty pill bottle, which works much better. And I have a lot of it. This is a very good thing. I tape the base of that wheel back onto the case wrapping the tape all the way around the case several times. At this point I still have five more weeks of travel in Japan and China, pushing or pulling it for up to half an hour at a time through airports, and train stations, and up and down stairs. That wheel never budges. It’s quite another story with the handle. If I have the handle fully extended it’s a complete crap-shoot whether or not it will go down again. The case has now gone to the graveyard for deceased cases at Vancouver’s landfill.
I could write an entire post about the challenges, pitfalls, concerns, and joys of eating in foreign countries. Perhaps I will one day. Here are a few food scenarios from eighteen days in Japan:
1. I get to Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station at the end of a long day at a festival. Shinjuku is the busiest station in the world. Everywhere I look there are stores and vending machines and people rushing in all directions. I’d been thinking I’d find a place to eat somewhere in the station but it’s overwhelming, I don’t know where to start looking, and I’m exhausted. I get the subway back to my hostel and buy some horrible noodly thing from a Family Mart convenience store.
2. Street food breakfast near Fushimi Inari Shrine is five really delicious gyoza, fresh squeezed orange juice, and mango ice cream topped with a swirl of tofu soft ice cream. Yum. I also see, but don’t taste, spiralled fried potatoes. A couple of weeks later I try the batter-dipped version in China. But that’s another story.
3. I confess – a boxed meal of chicken, soba noodles, and salad from Starbucks – for dinner at least three times. Sometimes I just want something easy and familiar, and that I can eat in my room while I catch up on the day’s photos and emails.
4. On the way back from Kameido Tenjin Shrine I pass a supermarket and buy strawberries, kiwi fruit, cherry tomatoes, and cheese so I’m eating more than meat and fish, noodles and rice. I prefer soymilk in my coffee, so I stop at Starbucks again for coffee, a sandwich, and a chicken salad. Can you see a pattern emerging here? Kanazawa Station – Starbucks again for coffee and a sandwich, which I eat without going on line so for the first time in days I get really present.
5. At a regular Japanese café/restaurant (as opposed to the ubiquitous Starbucks) I’m served coffee in a Royal Doultonesque cup and saucer, complete with a gold spoon. So civilised.
6. Almost every day I eat too much sugary stuff – soft ice cream (which is everywhere) and cookies. Comfort food much?
7. The only food available near my hostel in Shirakawa-gō is from a convenience store. The evening I arrive I stock up. It turns out that the milk I buy for my morning cup of tea is actually yogurt so my tea goes down the drain. I also have a small bottle of iced coffee, which I heat on the hostel stove. I have a meat-and-egg sandwich for breakfast. It’s actually not bad.
8. On my first day in Japan my guide Osamu takes me to a sushi restaurant. I’d like to say Best. Sushi. Ever. However although it is excellent it’s no better than we get in Vancouver thanks to the large Japanese population here.
9. And now for the really good stuff! Jess and Hai take me to a place in Tokyo only locals would know for ramen. It’s my first ever bowl of real Japanese ramen, not the noodles-in-a-cup crap that cash-strapped students and backpackers live on, but the real thing. It’s a rich flavourful broth with noodles, bean sprouts, chicken, and green onions. I am in food heaven.
Then in Kenrokuen Garden with Mo, in a classic Japanese teahouse, I have matcha green tea in a perfect pottery bowl, served with a tiny impeccable daifuku cake (mochi wrapped around sweet red bean paste). It is a place I probably would not have stepped into alone, and I find it both soothing and wonderfully exotic. I feel as if I’ve stepped into a movie set, and yet it is real, and for the Japanese completely natural.
Later we have lunch in one of the restaurants next to the garden. Again I have ramen. This one has mushrooms, jellied vegetables, seaweed, corn, greens, and more. And gold flakes sprinkled on top. I think this is the best meal I have in Japan though there are others to rival it.
In a restaurant in Ogimachi I have soba. Ramen is soup with wheat noodles. Udon is fat wheat noodles, which are often served in a broth. Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat. Buckwheat is also often served as noodles in a broth, so I suppose I really have soba-noodle soup, but it’s soup as only the Japanese can make it with prawn and vegetable tempura, seaweed and various other things. I am alone. It’s just me and this bowl of bliss and I am filled with a sweet joy along with the steaming food.
In a Kyoto restaurant I have steamed rice with tempura prawns and vegetables and some kind of sauce or gravy. It is yet another drool-worthy meal. In the hostel restaurant there I eat a savoury pancake called okonomiyaki, which they call Japanese pizza. It’s completely different, except for being round and flat, but tastes just as good. And on my last night in Japan I find a very good vegan restaurant near the hostel and eat a huge plate of salad and a chocolate cranberry muffin.
I have so fallen in love with ramen that I have learned to make my own. It has become one of our favourite winter meals.
And I have fallen in love with Japan. I didn’t expect to. I was embarrassingly ignorant of the Japanese people and their beautiful culture. I thought the country had become so modernised that nothing was left of the real Japan. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The Japanese have a deep love of, and reverence for, their ancient culture, to the point that there are thousands of festivals every year, each celebrating a historical event or religious custom dating back hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. Some of the festivals are fun, but many are serious and respectful re-enactments based on deeply held spiritual beliefs.
There’s a feeling to this country that permeates everything. I think it may have begun as obsequiousness but has evolved into an enduring and endearing respect for others, or at worst an everyday courtesy to others, a level of plain good manners that is rarely seen elsewhere. People are polite, kind, helpful, and honest. I think it’s a familiar trope to say that the Japanese people are “two-faced”; that they will be unfailingly polite to your face but unless you are in the innermost circle you will not see their true personality. No doubt there is an opaqueness, a kind of secrecy, a sense that truly knowing Japan and the Japanese is somehow an impenetrable mystery. Whether this is true or not doesn’t concern me since I am simply a visitor in their country. As a visitor my experience is sweet and delightful. People are unfailingly helpful, and friendly, and concerned for my wellbeing. And I never feared for the safety of my person or my belongings except from other foreigners, never from the Japanese. They are raised with too much respect for others.
There’s a feeling to this country that permeates everything. It’s an overarching energy that holds in place a kind of wisdom that survives despite overcrowding, stifling gender roles, salary-man alcoholism, the roughness of dockworkers and fishermen, economic woes, and government corruption. Japan somehow remains true to itself. The culture has been influenced for hundreds of years by Chinese culture, and more recently by other Asian countries, Europe, and North America, and yet it has found a way to absorb all these influences and yet still be something truly unique.
I fell in love with Japan for this – the unique Japanese culture.
I fell in love with a country that has embraced cuteness like a national hymn to joy. Yes, I know there are other sides to this worship of cuteness – it infantilises young women who still dress in the clothing of childhood for one thing, but can we please also embrace the fun and charm of it. They call it kawaii and it is everywhere.
I fell in love with Japan for the food.
I fell in love with Japan for being one of the most exotic countries I’ve been to and yet it is neat and spotlessly clean and it’s safe to drink the water. It’s an unusual juxtaposition.
I fell in love with Japan for being able to realistically feel safe walking alone after dark, and for knowing my belongings would always be safe.
I fell in love with Japan for the kindness of the people.
I fell in love with Japan for the festivals ranging from wild and raucous to solemn and reverent.
I fell in love with Japan because of their obvious love of nature.
I fell in love with Japan for the beauty of their gardens.
I fell in love with Japan for their fabulous creativity.
I fell in love with Japan because their striving for perfection has lead to a level of efficiency seen in all aspects of society that is truly mind-boggling.
I started my visit feeling as if Japan was the most foreign country I’d ever been to, and I was completely bewildered by it. After eighteen days I left with nothing more than a strong desire to return and experience more of this unique and wonderful country.
This is the last post about Japan. Here are all the other posts I’ve written about my time there:
Japan: a Revelation
Next post: Some tales from Beijing. Or maybe something about Rishikesh, India where we are right now.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.