Saturday, October 31, 2009

Making friends in Japan

And once again those little flag pins lead to adventures. We’re in Takayama, a town in the mountains. The old part of town has been well preserved and is a UNESCO world heritage site, which means it is a big tourist destination – both for international and domestic tourism. Wilf has booked us into a little hotel that has a selection of types of rooms – we’re in a Japanese style room with a private bath. You know what that means – we’re sleeping on the floor!


There’s himself reclining on his futon.

And here he is watching a baseball game:


Traditional it may be, but we do have Internet access! Anyhoo, we set out tonight to walk around the old town. Bought some skewers of grilled something from a street vendor – don’t know what it was but she was doing a brisk business, so we figured we should join in. Takayama is known for its sake distilleries and we dropped into one store for a sample. Or two.

Eventually we found our way to a pub listed in our guide book. It gave the name – Wada, but of course none of the restaurants have their names in Roman letters. The guide had the name in Kanjii, so by following the map and trying to match the characters we figured we were in the right spot. We snuggled up to the bar and were given English menus. Which are of limited help, sometimes. I mean, really, when the menu says ‘Chicken tail on skewer’ what are you to make of that? What do they consider to be a tail on a chicken?  ‘Chicken entrails on skewer’ – I actually figure they mean that one and thanks but no thanks.

We settled on chicken yakitori, fried squid and grilled shiitake mushrooms and with enough pointing at the menu and hand signals got things underway. The rest of the people at the bar were vastly amused by the cook’s attempts to speak English and were giving him a hard time. After a lot of head nodding and smiling eventually came the sentence out of which I could pick ‘America?’ Which led to ‘Ah, Canada’, then a lot of had signals to ascertain that, yes, Canada does have mountains. Pretty soon the two couple next to us were sending over skewers (nothing scary, thank heavens) and they passed their dish of squid just as ours arrived.

I gave each of the two women a Canadian flag pin – and what a commotion that caused. Such excitement!In fact one of them got on the cell phone – I could hear a torrent of Japanese, out of which I could pick ‘Canada’ and ‘Vancouver’ – and then then phone is handed to me to speak to this person! It was so loud in the bar that neither one of us could hear the other….

Anyway, much bonding occurred – I was presented with a bead bracelet, cards were exchanged, drinks were bought and by the time they all left it was handshakes and air kisses all around.


And no, I don’t know why all Japanese feel the need to make the rabbit ears when they are having their picture taken.

The Japanese have been extremely polite, helpful and kind to us all along. I’ve been really trying to speak a few words of Japanese. I think I’ve got  Good morning and Thank you very much down quite well – people seem to recognize what I’m saying. We were walking in a garden yesterday and I said Good morning  - Ohayo gozaimasu (which sounds like ohio gozaimasss) to a man as we passed on a narrow path. I don’t think that the fellow could looked any more surprised if a unicorn had walked by and spoken to him. Today at lunch I said Thank you – arigato gozaimasu to the hostess and she looked surprised and blurted out ‘Very Good!’

I’ll leave you for today with the following as a warning to what happens when someone has one too many beers on a Saturday night:


Friday, October 30, 2009

Drinking Tea in Japan

Okay – enough about coffee. Tea comes in three basic forms here. There is brown tea, which is probably the equivalent of our orange pekoe – your basic everyday stuff. There is green tea. And there is Green Tea! The green tea is pale green in colour and doesn’t, to my uneducated palate, taste too different from the brown stuff.

Green Tea! is the stuff of the famous tea ceremony. In the interest of maintaining international relations I will not use words like – algae, or pond scum or, well you get the idea. Let’s just say that it must be an acquired taste.

Now, we did not partake in a classic tea ceremony. While we were in Kyoto we were visiting various shrines and temples (and they sure have a lot of them). We went to the Golden Temple, which is one of the very important ones. And it is beautiful. The gardens are exquisite. The temple itself is lovely, and then being gilded it is magical, perched the edge of its lake. Well, here:



There is a lovely path through the garden, and lanterns and out buildings to admire. It is also one of the most popular sites in Kyoto, and it tends to look like this:


There were school kids in uniform, school kids in matching hats, women in saris from India, a group of Russians in business suits with interpreters and guides. People, people, every where. We came to a little tea spot amongst the trees right about when we needed a little sit down, so in we went.IMG_0559

We’ve learned that when you see red felt coverings on benches that there is food or a place to rest at hand. We each received a bowl of green tea and a small  - cookie? sweet? pastry?, along with instructions to eat the sweet first.


I’m not sure if you can tell, but pressed into the surface is the temple (lower right corner), a phoenix (upper right corner) and two little squares of gold leaf.  Like many Japanese sweets this is a bean concoction, with an oddly sweet taste and a strange texture – a bit gritty. Not bad, but not what we were expecting. The tea has been beaten with a whisk, so there is a layer of foam on top, with the bitter green tea underneath. You are supposed to pick it up the bowl with both hands, hold it in your right hand, turn it 180 degrees with your left and then drink it in three gulps. I must admit I saved a bit of the sweet for after cause I thought I might want to get the taste of the tea out of my mouth. So – interesting, but not exactly a refreshing cuppa!

Towards the exit of the temple there was a a souvenir area that had all kinds of boxed candy and treats. We’ve seen them everywhere, but haven’t bought any because we have no idea what they are and just because they look pretty doesn’t mean they are nice (may I remind you – bean paste?) But they were giving samples, so we decided to man up and try them. Not the best idea we’ve had. We take a little sample, taste it, then try to keep a straight face and get away from the vendor as politely as possible. I have to keep remembering that just because I don’t understand what the people around me are saying doesn’t mean that they don’t understand me – no shouting ‘Oh my God that’s terrible!’ Wilf took one last bite – something that looked like a grape jelly candy. He reeled to one side, looked stricken and muttered to me ‘That was the worst one EVER’. So there we were, trying to maintain some decorum, giggling hysterically…… The good news is that we did find a box of something called chocolates – they have the word chocolate, the word milk and the word chestnut on the packaging. They taste good, and that’s the main thing…

Thursday, October 29, 2009

There’s nothing like that first can of coffee in the morning….

Finding coffee isn’t really a problem in Japan – there’s a Starbucks almost anywhere we go, and there are all sorts of other coffee shops around, too. Even the temples and shrines have coffee spots. Sometimes its a coffee machine – put in the money, push the button, wait, open the little door and there’s a paper cup of coffee. Usually its 2/3 of a cup of coffee – getting an actual full cup isn’t the norm.

Anyhoo, we wanted to tour the Imperial Palace in Kyoto. There’s an English tour at 10:00 am, but you have to present yourself at least 30 minutes early at the Imperial Household Office (with your passport, please and thank you) to get a ticket. We figured we’d better get an early start on this one. We stopped at the coffee shop near our hotel for breakfast – the one called ‘Open’. We think because it almost always is open. They have a morning set, which is coffee and…. I chose cheese toast, Wilf chose the breakfast sandwich. Both came with sides. I wound up with a big thick slice of white bread, lightly toasted, with barbque sauce and melted white cheese on top. Wilf had a white bread sandwich with a scrambled egg inside. And barbque sauce. The sides were a hard boiled egg and a salad, of shredded lettuce, onions and carrots with a dressing. Included was a big mug of coffee. Considering some of the things we’ve been faced with for breakfast this seemed refreshingly normal.

We found our way by subway to the palace, filled out the forms and got our tickets, then had a bit of a wait. It was a nice morning and we sat at a table under the trees. Wilf was wishing for a second cup of coffee, so I went off to the pavillion. No joy in the food service area, but there’s always a vending machine within sight around here. And sure enough:


A hot cuppa joe, in a can! I’ve heard that you can get anything from a vending machine around here. Mostly the ones we’ve seen sell drinks, hot and cold in cans or bottles. We saw one in the train station that had a frozen food company logo on it, but the pictures of the food had steam rising from them. And they included such things as spaghetti and French fries. We decided that frozen spaghetti micro-waved in train station vending machine was probably not something we wanted to do!

Today we had breakfast at The Cafe du Monde. No need to go all the way to New Orleans – there’s one in the Kyoto train station! The sign said coffee and beignets, but we didn’t see beignets, so we went for ham sandwiches, instead. Then, when we decided that we did want a donut we went next door to Mr. Donut!

Oh, and by the way – the Merry Xmas signs were up around the train station, as well as a big Christmas tree or two. Right next to the Hallowe’en decorations!

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bath time!

After a long day sightseeing we’re sure enjoying  a bath in the evening. Our hotel has men’s and women’s baths on the top floor looking out over the city. It sounds like mixed communal baths are no longer common, but separate communal baths are common in some hotels.

Our first experience with the communal bath was at the ryoken in Hakone and the instructions seem to be standard. The hotel provides us with a cotton yukata (kimono style robe), a sash and slippers. Ladies tie the sash higher – waist level, gentlemen tie it lower, around their hips. We have to remember left side of the robe over the right, which feels opposite to the usual. There is also a short hapi coat to wear if it is cold out. In our bathroom there are small plastic drawstring bags into which we put a small towel, shower cap if needed. We also take a large towel with us. Here I am in Hakone all ready to head out:


At this hotel the bath was in a small separate building across from where our room was. It really wasn’t cold enough for the hapi coat and I only used it the once. Here in Kyoto we just ride the elevator up, so no coat needed.

There is a rack at the entrance where the slippers are left, then into the dressing room. There are lockers there, with baskets in them, into which everything but the small towel go. From there it is into the bathing room proper. There seem to be less men around in the early evening, so Wilf took the camera up and managed a few pictures when there was no one else around.


First order of business is to go to the left where the little seats and taps are. Sit down on the seat, fill the  basin with water, turn on the hand held shower and start soaping and scrubbing and rinsing. There are bottles of soap, shampoo and conditioner provided. After much cleaning and rinsing it is time to get into the bath proper:


The little towel (a little bigger and thinner than a standard hand towel) is used as a washcloth, to preserve one’s modesty (sort of) when moving about, to wrap up one’s hair. It doesn’t go into the bath. Some people just fold it up and put it on top of their head, or wrap up their hair. The water is very hot – I have to ease in by degrees. When all the way in and sitting on the bottom the water is just about to my chin.

Once suitably parboiled it is time for another rinse, then out to dry off and get back into the yukata. It is a great way to end the day. The bath is open from about 6:oo am to mid morning. It opens again at 5:30 pm and stays open until about 1:00 am.

The joys of Japanese English…

So much to see and do. And reading the signage and trying to figure out what the intent was is high on the list of entertainment. For instance, today I saw this shopping bag in the 7-11 and couldn’t resist:


Don’t we all hate it being left?

We are staying at the Aranvert Hotel Kyoto. I thought that Aranvert was an unusual name for a Japanese hotel, having a vaguely French sound to it. Well, here is the explanation from the brochure in our room:

The name of Hotel: Aranvert Hotel Kyoto:

“Aranvert” means the nature of Ireland. Aranvert Hotel Kyoto intergrated the British traditioninto Kyoto’s long years of history. We provide the mixturised traditional atmosphare in perfect harmony.

Yeah. I’ll let you think about that one for a minute. (And, no, I’m not having trouble with the little keyboard on the netbook)

I do have to say that the fractured language is not limited to English. Today we saw a shop with a big electronic sign that said: Boulangfrie. The awning below said Boulangerie. Do you suppose anyone involved has even noticed the difference?

Monday, October 26, 2009

Deer 1, Wilf 0

Today we went to Nara to see the Todai-ji Temple. We left Kyoto by train in the rain, and by the time we arrived in Nara it had graduated to pouring rain. We transferred from the train to a local bus and off we went. The guide books mentioned that there were over 1,000 tame deer that lived in the park around the temple. They are considered ‘messengers of the gods’. Maybe so. But they’re pretty feisty, too.

We got off the bus and began to walk up the big path toward the temple. First thing we saw was a rickshaw driver trying to eat his lunch:


This particular ‘messenger of the gods’ ain’t too proud to beg.

There were women with pushcarts selling cookies that you could feed to the deer. That meant, of course, that there were a lot of deer around. Wet deer. Aggressive deer. We were looking around when Wilf lurched into me. At first he had the ‘why did you push me look’, but then he realized that I was in front him. He looked behind him and there was a deer with a ‘Dude! Where’s my cookie’ look about it. I guess when no cookie was forthcoming he decided a good head butt was in order. When Wilf turned around to take a picture I realized that the deer had left a mark:


And they were everywhere but in the temple proper:



But it was the temple and the Buddha within that we were there to see:



The temple is huge. The Buddha is huge. It is an amazing place. The Buddha was cast in 752 AD – he is 53ft high. Through fire, earthquake and political upheaval he has sat there for more than a thousand years, blessing those who seek his blessings.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trust a Geologist….

To find,where ever he goes, the sights of geological interest:


Here we are, in the mountains of  Hakone National Park, at Owakudani – the ‘valley of great boiling’. The same geothermic activity that provides the hot water for the springs also makes for this landscape – the vapours behind us are sulphur emissions – and yes, it smells as lovely as you can imagine. The hills are streaked with yellow, as are the streams, and the trees are really struggling.

To get there we took a train from Hakone town – back and forth through a series of switchbacks and tunnels. Then we switched to what was called a cable car. That turned out to be a funnicular train. Up we went, where we transferred to what was called the rope car, or the Hakone Ropeway. That turned out to be – a cable car system! The smelly valley was at the top. Up there everyone was eating baked sweet potatoes and eggs that had been boiled in the sulphur water, turning them black. We met two ladies who were such fun:


They insisted that we try the sweet potato – which turned out to be yummy. Then when they heard that we hadn’t tried the famous eggs – well, you can guess what happened next……


The eggs turned out to be soft boiled. In the interest of international relations we both ate one, but it falls into the category of ‘interesting’ experiences that don’t need to be repeated!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Hello Tokyo!

What day is it? What time is it? No matter – so far so good.

We arrived along at the Japan Airlines ticket counter along with several bus loads of Japanese students – our ticket agent took pity on us and bumped us up to business class, which made for a very comfortable flight over. We negotiated the train from Narita, the transfer to the subway system, a visit to Japan Rail to activate our rail passes and make train reservations, the purchase of a subway fare card and taking the subway (complete with transfers) to our hotel. Which we even found – only walked by it once, as it has no English character sign out front. But, by the process of eliminations (and the fact that it is 10 stories high, outlined in blue neon and the neon does say – 10 stores up ‘Hotel’).  Anyhow – we found it.

Today we took a half day bus tour and then spent the afternoon in Ginza and then in the neighbourhood of our hotel. So much to see, such food to eat! However, it is 8:30 p.m. here, but 4:30 a.m. on our body clocks and it has been a full day. Tomorrow we’re off to Hakone, for the hot springs and a tradition ryoken. And we’re taking the bullet train to get there. So – I’ll try for a more detailed report later.

Monday, October 19, 2009

If you go far enough West – you wind up East

And that’s what we’re going to do. Wilf and I are going to make the long desired (by me at least) trip to Japan. Only one more sleep and I’m very excited! I’ve always wanted to go to Japan – it seems like a country of such amazing contrasts, of serenity and vibrancy, of elegance and the poppiest of pop culture and so much more.

Usually when we plan a trip like this we book some sort of an escorted tour. Not this time – we’re just going. Wilf has booked hotels for us and we have a half day tour of Tokyo to try  and get the layout of the city fixed in our minds. Other than that – we’re going to wing it!

I took advice from Mike and Chris, my globe trotting brother and sister-in-law. They travel for long stretches with a wheeled 20” carry on suitcase. Chris says one of the secrets is one pair of shoes. Shoes are usually my downfall. But, taking her tips into consideration and visiting Mountain Equipment Co-op for some comfy travel pants (woven stretch, water and stain repellant) we’re pretty much ready to go.

We’ve loaded the netbook up with all the tools I think we’ll need and all the hotels claim we’ll have Internet access, so – watch this space for further adventures!


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Does this make it official?


Last night was the ‘Meet the Artist’ night at the Sidney Fine Art Show. The instructions were to show up, but no further instructions were provided. There seemed to be a fairly even split between those artists who where lingering near their work – in case someone had a question  - and those artists who were as far from their work because ACK! someone might ask a question!

I was reading something recently about artist’s statements. It said that artists write a lot about why they make a given piece, and what it means. And most people at shows ask ‘How did you do that?’ That certainly was my experience last night, both in questions I was asked, and in what I overheard.

I like to ask ‘Why did you decide to start this work?’ ‘Did you wind up where you thought you might when you began the work?’ and ‘Is this part of a series or progression of work for you?’

Nosey Parker, that’s me!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

One project nears the end….

And all the others begin to crowd in, too.

The bathroom renovation toddles toward its completion. The parade of trades people has ended – we’re still waiting for stuff, but without all the traffic in and out.


The bathtub is waiting for a test drive, as is the shower:


The new cabinet and counter needs a mirror and a light fixture:


And there are lots of accessories to be acquired. However, before that is going to happen there are other fish to fry. Or perhaps I should say – sushi to be eaten. Next adventure – we’re going to Japan!

Details to follow….