Wednesday, May 16, 2012


Springtime in Japan

It's springtime in Japan. Birds are chirping, bees are buzzing, flowers (and allergies) are in full bloom. Japan is coming out of the long winter slumber, which I had conveniently skipped in Singapore. As a result, the first thing I experienced was climate shock. Although the temperature in Japan was around 15 degrees Celsius, it felt freezing cold to me, coming from a sweltering 30 degrees Celsius. I was used to wearing shorts, skirts and dresses every day, and hadn't put on a pair of jeans in three months. That all changed in Japan, but it was nice to be part of the cycle of the seasons again, because when you've been in Singapore for awhile where it's perpetually summer, it starts to feel like time is standing still.   

Japan is pleasant country to visit, if you can afford it. Public transport is top notch and runs smoothly, which is probably why it's so expensive. Don't go to Japan unless you're ready to blow your savings, and you should know some survival Japanese, or be willing to learn a few phrases. You won't find many people who speak English, or many English menus in restaurants. But if you're on the fence, pluck up your courage and go for it! Japan is a fantastic destination and you won't regret it.

Julius and I stayed with some friends in the Kyoto area. Our first night in Japan they took us to dinner in a nearby town called Nara. We followed our guides down a pedestrian street to an alleyway dimly lit by a single red Japanese lantern. I pulled back a sliding door revealing a tiny hole in the wall restaurant. Jazz music mingled with sizzling chicken filled the air. There were eight seats around a bar, behind which stood the one man show. Playing the role of chef, bartender, and waiter, he ran everything himself. It was a small space, but he had everything he needed; a grill to make skewers, a deep fryer to make tempura, and a wok for sautéing. Bottles of sake and other liquors lined the bar and shelves, as well as spices and a toy race car and robot figurine. It felt like having a meal at a friend's place.     

The chef/bartender/waiter in his lair at the tiny chicken restaurant in Nara

The next day was Children's Day in Japan. We went to Miyama, a small village of thatched-roof houses very popular with Japanese tourists. Its old-fashioned houses and fields haven't been altered much by time, and are kept in pristine condition by the owners. Our friend's father had grown up there, and Julius and I were thrilled by the invitation to participate in a Japanese family lunch.  

A thatched-roof house in Miyama

Their house was extraordinary, and looked similar to the one above. The roof was a traditional Japanese structure made of grass and reeds. Inside there was a kitchen where you took off your shoes before going up a few steps to several rooms with traditional Japanese floor mats made of rice straw called tatami. Apart from the living room that had low table and a television, the rooms were sparsely decorated. In Japan many people sleep on futons, which are thin padded mattresses placed on the floor and then folded up and put away when not in use. 
Friendly frog

We ate outside at the edge of the fields. I helped set up a table that was three planks of wood pushed together and resting atop stumps of wood. I looked down at the gravel beneath my feet and found tiny ants crawling and even a tiny spider having a stroll. Japanese bees were flitting around, as well as majestic black butterflies. The springtime sunshine had inspired all the bugs, birds, and butterflies to venture out from their hiding places in the adjacent fields. Even a little green frog came to say hello. Everything was bursting with life.

A springtime picnic in the Japanese countryside 

After lunch we walked through the village and visited a museum in a thatched-roof house. When we came out of the museum we were surprised to see that the weather had not held up, and it had started raining and become chilly, at least by my standards. We turned back and had dessert in the living room, our legs tucked beneath the kotatsu. Kotatsu is a low table covered by a blanket on which the table top sits. A small heater is attached underneath the table top, and the blanket keeps the heat in. It's used almost exclusively in Japan, and is how people stay warm in the winter, as a substitute for central heating. 

That evening our friends took us to an onsen, which is a thermal bath. There is no thermal water source in Kyoto, so the water is brought in from elsewhere in Japan. The water is believed to have healing properties due to the minerals it contains. The facilities at that particular onsen included a steam room, indoor bath, three different outdoor baths, and a decorative waterfall. 

Men and women bathe separately, and everyone is completely naked. You can only bring in one small white towel if you wish. First you wash your hair and body before going into the water: You sit down on a little stool in front of a mirror. There’s shampoo, body soap, and a bowl for you to use. When you press down on a handle, water flows from a shower head at the top of the mirror. After you've finished washing, you turn over your bowl and leave it on the stool, and an attendant comes and cleans the station immediately. Then, if you have long hair you tie it back and wrap your towel around it if you wish. My Japanese friend and I went to the steam room, and then to one of the outdoor baths which was around 40 degrees Celsius. When you've finished, you don't need to rinse off or wash again, and you can go to your locker, dry off, and get dressed. If you need to dry your hair, there are plenty of professional quality hair dryers to use.  

After the onsen we went for ramen at a place called Tenkaippin. The broth is a secret recipe. It isn't a thin watery soup, but a thick gravy made of chicken broth with lots of noodles. It was the perfect ending to the perfect day.

After such a phenomenal day, I was already envisioning myself living in Japan, going to the onsen a couple times a week, and speaking Japanese. I conveniently overlooked the fact that until that point we had been with our friends the entire time, so the next day would be the real test. We were on our own. 

1 comment:

  1. As usual, Kelly, your writing brings things alive.
    Especially this time, since some of what you describe are familiar to me (although it was over 50 years ago!).

    I'm surprised at the lack of English being spoken. It wasn't like that in 1954-55, but there was still a fairly large American presence then. I had a phonetic Japanese dictionary/phrase book and found the language pretty easy to pick up. I was also guilty of making some fairly hysterical mistakes, which I'll tell you about another time.

    I remember places like your tiny restaurant/bar with pleasure. I'm glad they haven't disappeared.

    You two are so very fortunate to be able to have seen as much of the world as you have.
    ¡Sigue jugando...........................!