Japan

August 6, 2008 at 10:01 pm | Posted in Japan | Leave a comment
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June 24 – July 9

Japan was a land of extremes. It was extremely clean, extremely modern, extremely confusing, extremely expensive, and extremely…well…Japanese. Our first task was to attempt to navigate the rails to reach our hostel in Ikebukuro which is a borough outside Tokyo. A hostel was all we could afford at $45 per person compared to $5 in Vietnam. How did we pick Ikebukuro? Well, it had a nice hostel listed in Lonely Planet and it was supposedly a less touristy suburb of Tokyo and we wanted to experience the real Japan.

Well, now we are lugging more and more stuff again because we are worried to send home a package since one of ours got lost and we also don’t want to spend the money. On top of acquiring a new suitcase filled to the brim with purchases, we had purchased a set of irresistible baskets in Vietnam of which the largest was almost as big as one of our backpacks! It was the sort that the Vietnamese carry on their back to bring rice in from the fields. We actually bought it from a teenage girl who was selling corn that she carried in it. We hope she didn’t have any leftovers that day! The design of the weaving was beautiful and smaller baskets fit nicely inside. It was light but bulky. We would have bought a bigger one but we needed it to fit in the overhead compartment of the airplane. We figured we only had one more country to go so we could manage a little bit more “stuff” as long as it cleared customs in the US since some countries are particular about plant products which, in fact, a basket is. However, we successfully made it to Japan without a problem but didn’t want to lug all of this stuff with us so we left our suitcase with long-term storage in the airport which at $5 per day cost about the same as if we had mailed it home but, it was worth the convenience. Japan’s Narita airport has lots of convenient services – phone rental (our phone did not work because they are on a futuristic technology), baggage forwarding, sleeping compartments for long layovers, 500 trains to any destination and it is all very clean and gleaming.

We are amazed by the sheer magnitude of the train system. The billboards depicting the inextricable knots of intertwined lines were shocking especially knowing that we HAD to figure it out because we had already purchased our 2 week Japan Rail pass while in Vietnam. Its steep price was supposedly going to save us lots of money. There are signs pointing in every direction color coded with more colors than a Crayola box. So far, we see very little written in English so we do what any brave traveller would do…we ask for directions. We proceed to track 14 after flashing our passes and ride the train to Ikebukuro and we are impressed with the newness and the built-in televisions and announcements in English yet no one seems to appreciate all of that except us as we are the only ones without our noses focused on our cell phones that seem to stream out some tantalizing data that keeps all of the locals hunkered down and typing away. Our Lonely Planet guide gives us some landmarks to watch for in order to exit the maze of the underground system and back into the commercial-filled daylight. We easily find our hostel which, again, is spic and span and has a double bed and two bunks which excites the boys whose shoes go flying off so they can quickly claim the top bunk before the other and set up their forts. The place was wired for internet and it was free! We are able to upload a ton of photos that we were unable to do in Vietnam. Internet access in Japan is as much a part of the infrastructure as paint – it was a given wherever you went. So, since our phone was now defunct, we were still able to stay connected.

We went in search of food. Now the fun begins. We have one child who only eats chicken fingers and pizza and another child who is constantly starving. English is really elusive when it comes to food and the guidebook claims that most of the restaurant selections are on a floor or two in the local department stores. Sure enough, we make our way to the 15th floor of the local department store and there you walk the winding corridors around a myriad of restaurants. Unfortunately, all were expensive or had only indeterminable foodstuffs shown as realistic plastic display cases in the window – no pizza or chicken fingers. We end in, once again, the bowels of the underground train system and while making our way to the famous Shinjuku area (famous for its lustrous red-light district and neon lights), we come across a Beck’s coffee shop where the boys scarf down cinnamon bagels covered in cream cheese and grape jelly. For the rest of our journey in Japan, the boys were always in search of a Beck’s store for more of those bagels. We were able to indulge 2 more times. We wander the streets of Shinjuku and the next day, downtown Tokyo, and are disenchanted with the commercialism. We are unable to find anything but stores. Downtown Tokyo had 3 Tiffany & Co. stores within two cityblocks! Even the Sony flagship store was not as technologically exciting as we expected. The language barrier was strongest here in Japan and everyday situations were difficult to navigate. When we sprinted towards a New York city-based Dean & Deluca gourmet shop that we had frequented so many times while in NYC as though it was an oasis on a barren desert, we knew cosmopolitan Japan was not for us. So, we ditched the city and headed for the mountains – Mt. Fuji to be exact.

We stayed in another fantastic hostel. We had never stayed in hostels before on our whole trip as it seemed too much of a gamble with its stereotypical party atmosphere and close quarters. But in Japan, hostels are in a different league. Cleanliness and respect for people around you is a way of life in Japan and this was nicely displayed in our humble abodes. In Mt. Fuji, our hostel was Japanese style which meant that our room was simply bare with an intricately woven grass mat floor. There was no furniture save for a central coffee table with short legs keeping it low to the ground and a t.v. The light permeated the room through the rice paper that lined the typical Japanese sliding doors with their pattern of rectangular shapes. The closet revealed our futon mattresses that we laid on the floor as if our room was a big tent and we were camping. The boys were so excited. The communal showers and baths were cleaner than ours at home (which isn’t saying much) – I should say cleaner than that in a hospital but with pretty yellow colors and flowers in each stall. This is where we encountered the famous multi-functional…toilets. We still believe that you require a special license to operate these contraptions whose purpose in life is to get all your parts clean as a whistle while affording you comfort and privacy at the same time. First of all, as you sit on the toilet, there is a set of push-button controls on the side with interesting illustrations to help you guess what surprise you were in store for when you pressed it. One button was for ladies only while another indicated a cleaning cycle much like you would expect in a car wash. There was another set of buttons that make various flushing sounds to mask any other embarrassing sounds one might make complete with volume control! Then there was another set of buttons that we couldn’t figure out but we expect it was technology advanced enough to fit you with a new pair of underpants and give you a little pat on the butt as you exited the stall. The boys showed up in the room a bit sprayed and soaked a few times after a foray into the restrooms.

While many backpackers visit Mt. Fuji in order to scale the mountain at sunrise, we were happy to have a chance to view it from afar but for the time we were there, we couldn’t even figure out where it was due to the thick cloud cover. You could not see the base or the top and it was supposedly right behind our hostel. Instead, we ventured to a local museum of decorated kimonos. Now you would think, how will two boys fare in a museum of decorated kimonos but sure enough, they always rose to the occasion. We watched a film in English about how this man painstakingly tied and dyed kimonos using a unique technique so that each one becomes a work of art depicting a part of nature and when all of the kimonos are hung in succession, it creates a continuous mural displaying each season of the year. We were all in awe and so was the Smithsonian as his was the only collection by a living artist ever displayed in Washington D.C. Strangely, in a country that is seemingly one-tenth the size of the U.S. but with nearly half of the U.S. population, we were the only ones visiting this incredible collection. We managed to find pizza for lunch and visited an herb festival as the lavender was in full bloom. Now how often do you think of lavender fields when thinking of Japan but it was a lovely scene on the lake with lavender fields, mysterious clouds, floating pagodas and the sound of new age music being played on advanced synthesizers that permeated the surroundings. Now we felt more at ease and began to see the appreciation that Japan has for the natural world and how it plays such an important part in their health and life balance. We were then graced with a 5 minute break in the clouds where the summit of Mt. Fuji peeked through as our reward for not judging Japan on our first impressions of a very material world.

We loved being in some of the restaurants where the waitress lays down all of your plates and silverware and walks away and doesn’t return. After hemming and hawing and trying to figure out what we had done to offend her, we discovered a little button next to the salt and pepper shakers that pages her when you are ready to order. Now isn’t that smart. We also appreciated that there is no tipping. Good service is simply part of the culture as is not littering. What was fascinating about not littering was that not only was there no litter, there were no public trash barrels! People simply take their garbage home with them. How nice it was to see streetscapes with no unsightly trash barrels. We still don’t know what came first – no trash barrels or no littering! We also noticed that no one locks their bikes. Now, there were more bikes in Japan than automobiles and there was never any traffic or horns beeping (that would be disrespectful) and everyone either rode their bikes or took the lovely mass transit. Suddenly, we were feeling quite embarrassed to be from the American culture – what are we doing wrong at home?

We easily navigated our way across 4 different train lines together with the hordes of uniformed teens heading home from school while tap-tap-tapping on their phone/ipod/camera/video devices. We simply flashed our passes and headed for the cars designed for unreserved seating. You could get from one place to another with a train coming on every track every 6 to 12 minutes if not sooner. We headed to Kyoto next on the famous bullet train (180 miles per hour) and spent 4 glorious days traversing the city in search of elusive geisha girls, pagodas, traditional Japanese homes and tranquil gardens. The boys loved tracking the geisha girls who were usually readying to emerge from their secret dwellings in the early evening in order to rendezvous with their clients at an unmarked location. Being that there are purportedly only 1000 authentic geisha girls left in all of Japan, we were staked out for several street corners giving hand signals to one another if there was a sighting. Just like paparazzi stalking celebrities, we would make a beeline toward the geisha and her defensive female chaperone who had probably just spent the better part of the day doing the geisha’s hair, makeup and wrapping of layers of fabric. Well, most of the pictures were blurred or just of their backs as they expertly appeared and disappeared with swiftness despite clonking around on 5 inch high Japanese sandals. After all of the excitement died down and the sun started to set, we went in search of food. We enjoyed teriyaki chicken, miso soup, vegetable tempura, fresh shrimp and pizza (of course). The piece de resistance though was in Kobe where we dined on the infamous Kobe beef which was prepared for us by our own personal chef. Kobe beef is succulent, soft and tender because of the massaging and pampering that each animal receives before its doomed day. We are still astonished that beef can taste exponentially better than what we were used to although we are still assessing whether it is worth the exorbitant price. It was a once in a lifetime dinner treat. (The boys quietly did word searches and puzzles while we dined as they have not yet warranted such a lavish treat – I think we fed them PBJ right before we got to the restaurant).

The great treats of our Japan adventure were Nara and Takayama. Nara is like walking into a movie set. We visited one temple area that was surrounded by 3000 stone lanterns impressive enough that we would seriously consider returning for a festival just to see them all lit. It was completely tranquil and zen-like and this is where we encountered the infamous people-friendly deer that roam all of Nara. They are lovely spotted deer just like relatives of Bambi but they keep their spots through adulthood. We are used to deer being so skittish around humans that you rarely see them up close let alone pet them! Yet we were surrounded and sometimes stalked by these gorgeous creatures in search of a biscuit that are intermittently sold at little unmanned kiosks where you leave your $1.50 in a cup (honor system, of course). When you raise the biscuit way above their heads, these humble creatures seem to nod and bow their heads in thanks. Perhaps they are urging the biscuit closer or perhaps it is simply an involuntary response to having something lurking over their head but be that as it may, it was fascinating to be around these animals. There were thousands of them decorating the grasslands and forests around temples, pagodas and garden landscapes. We visited the largest wooden structure in the world which is a temple housing a 450 ton Buddha. What the boys were more impressed with was climbing through a marked column with a hole in its base. If you could fit through the hole, you would be blessed with good luck. At another location, if you could successfully walk from one rock to another one with your eyes closed and without straying, you would have good luck in love. The boys tried it all and in a place that reveres luck, we had a lot of unusual customs to try our luck with! Takayama is a hillside village at the foot of the dramatic Japanese Alps. We stayed at the Rickshaw Inn which was another Japanese styled place and we ventured out into the village and surrounding area for 4 days. It was heaven. We saw gigantic woodland homes that put Swiss Chalets to shame. They were architectural feats and could last the brutal winters in warmth and comfort. 100 people could easily sleep in one. We made paper from mulberry bark, we tasted soba noodle soup which is famous from the alpine waters that it is made with and walked the country markets where we sampled beef kabobs, native cherries and other fruits.

As our 2 week rail pass expired before our 17 day adventure did, we needed to rush back to Tokyo to leverage our pass. It was a tragedy to leave this beautiful village full of secret lanes, idyllic scenes, puppet shows and museums. We waved goodbye to the 1200 year old ginko tree on our way to the train station and also stopped at a french bakery for some provisions for our all day ride. We wanted to take the long way back to Tokyo in order to traverse the Alps and make sure we got our money’s worth out of the rail pass! We spent our last days at the Toyota showroom which was fun for all as we learned about hybrid energy and let the boys indulge in the free “racecar driving” machines. We discovered a lively part of Ikebukuro that made us want to stay longer in Japan but, alas, it was time to end our adventure. We were comforted by the fact that we were heading to see family in California so that we didn’t have to say that our adventure was ending, it was only that the international portion of the adventure was ending and that the domestic portion was about to begin, especially knowing that a visit to Legoland was part of the upcoming itinerary with their cousins. We were also gaining a day as we tried to sleep as we passed over the International Date Line allowing us to prolong our adventure just one more precious day.

The boys waved good-bye to Japan from our 4:00 pm flight with yet another thread woven into their growing canvas upon which they will reflect their thoughts about the world as they age. Mom stifled some tears as leaving this country was a poignant part of the journey as we depart all that was once so different and misunderstood but were now leaving it as one would leave a new friend – excited to have made a new acquaintance and eager to visit them again and learn more about them the next time. We may never go back to those same places but when we are home we will more readily select a book from the rack about a place that we have been or when we see a news article we will surely read it rather than just the headline or when we pass a store selling global wares, rather than pass by with little interest in items we knew nothing about, we will now stop in and seek to reconnect with our new and everlasting friend – the world – whose cultures now warm our hearts rather than simply provide pictures in a magazine from a place so far away. We now feel a closeness and belonging and empathy that will be a permanent gift – an unexpected gift. One cannot prepare you for this feeling as you embark on any adventure – it must be experienced, like having children or volunteering your time to help others. This adventure will yield many more unexpected gifts as we revisit our lives and we hope to share those gifts with our friends and family and those who have accompanied us via this blog. Stay tuned and we thank everyone who has supported us in our quest to see the world.

The Jalbert Family

Click for slideshow:

<img src=”https://photos.google.com/album/AF1QipMJ2C4dIAcTgV18n6aWo4BP6q-SOLPys7XriLWx/photo/AF1QipP9k9q-6DV9o8D4JNaEyRjfBnqN8H-3_C8xH8Q0

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