Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sayonara Japan!

So tonight is my last night in Japan. In the morning I jump on a plane to Singapore to meet up with my brother and sisters in Malaysia. I can't wait, as I've seen their photos from the 2 weeks they've been there already, and lets just say I am sooooooooooo ready for some sun. It's been raining here the last few days.

My last few days at the Tsujimura family home were awesome. They were the warmest and friendliest family, so much so that the few days I was going to stay there turned into a week. We did girly things like watch movies and go shopping, and I also went to a stone spa, which is like a big sauna where you lie down on a slab of stone for 90 minutes and drink water and sweat all the bad stuff out. Kinda weird, but I felt good afterwards. Before we left we gave gifts to Mayumi's family, and we all got a bit teary when we presented Mayumi with a photo album with photos from our time in Japan. I guess you get pretty close to people when you share a room and work with them for 2 months. We finished off with a picnic in the park next to a cherry blossom tree that has just bloomed. Beautiful!

Amanda and I then went to Kawaguchi-ko, a town at the foot of Mt Fuji. Unfortunately it was pretty overcast, so we couldn't see Fuji-san all that well, but we did a nice hike and went for a bike ride around the lake and got to see some Icicle Lava caves (sounds cooler than what it is, actually). And now here I am back in Tokyo where I began, almost exactly 2 months ago. Back to the city of neon lights, vending machines and lots and lots of people. So to reflect on my trip, I thought I'd do a little list of top 5s:

Top 5 Highlights
1. Doing a tea ceremony in kimono, especially the part where Amanda ate a clove of garlic right before going into the ceremony to kill the germs from her cold and stunk out the elevator.
2. Snowboarding in Hakuba - the mountains were amazing and so was snowboarding once I stopped falling over. Thrown in with that is all the fun nights spent at Tracks and at Aqua Alpine too.
3. The whole weekend in Kanazawa - Kenrokku-en gardens, the art gallery and the friendly people. Loved it.
4. Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Museum
5. Onsen - once you get over the naked part, this is by far the most relaxing and cleansing way to end a day.

Top 5 Things I Will miss
1. Being able to get anything from vending machines that are situated every 200m... beer, hot food, hot drinks, tickets...
2. Feeling extremely safe... I never felt in danger once in Japan. And also the cleanliness of everything... even train station toilets were good!
3. The extremely efficient public transport system (althought not the extremely high price for tickets). I love that you can ride a Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto in 2 hours.
4. The food! So good for you and so tasty.
5. Of course, all the people I met here... especially the Tsujimura family and all the Hakuba regulars.

Top 5 Food/ Drinks
1. Okonomi-yaki!
2. Sushi
3. Soba and Tempura... yum yum.
4. Calpis - it's a flavoured drink that's a cloudy white colour and tastes sort of like creamy soda, so good with some Sho chu (Japanese alcohol)
5. Suki-yaki

3 Things I will not miss (I couldn't think of 5)
1. The constant stream of recordings and midi music that blares from speakers EVERYWHERE. That sweet ladies voice gets so annoying after a while.
2. The coldness... it's bearable, but I am hanging for some sun.
3. Not being able to communicate properly... I got good at it by the end, but I guess I thought more people would speak English here.

So that's it. See you in Malaysia!

x meg x

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Goodbye Mountains

It's been 2 days since I left Hakuba and I am just beginning to realise how that place is its own little world up there in the mountains, so isolated from the rest of Japan and so different from the rest of Japan. I worked my last shift on Saturday morning and although it was sad to say goodbye, the snow was quickly disappearing and most of the friends I had made were leaving, so I was pretty ready to move on. Besides, my friend Mayumi had invited me to her home in Nishio for a few days and I couldn't wait to meet her family and experience Japanese food and culture for a while, as you don't get too much of that staying in a hotel owned and frequented by gaijin (foreigners).

Having said that, my last few weeks at Hakuba were so much fun. One weekend I had off I took a few trains to Kanazawa, a largish town on the west coast of Japan. I pretty much just picked the location from my Lonely Planet guide and said "I wanna go there". It was well worth the 4 hour 4-train journey to get there. I stayed at a gorgeous little backpackers which was in a 100 year old building on the canal and owned by the nicest man who made sure I was looked after and recommended a little sushi place for dinner. So I walked there and was greeted by "Mama" a lovely lady in a kimono who spoke great English and her husband made me the best sushi I have eaten. It was a tiny place, but was filled with people, and I met three lovely History teachers who practised their limited English on me and kept feeding me more sushi and sake. They were very funny and were amazed to hear I was also a teacher, because they thought I was 18! After one of them began to tell me "I love you!" after maybe his 5th glass of sake, I decided it was time to call it a night, but it was one of those great Japanese nights, where I was walking around the Kanazawa Scramble afterwards with a big stupid smile on my face. Or maybe that was just the sake. The next day I went to see the sights, walking through Kenroku-en gardens which were absolutely gorgeous despite the overcast day with plum trees and Japanese pine trees and picteresque lakes and panoramic views of Kanazawa, which put the Botanical gardens to shame. I'm sad to say my camera went flat halfway through, which was a shame. I also went to a Contemporary Art museum which was amazing and an old Geisha house in this cute little Geisha district. I also went to a gold leaf factory where an old man somehow explained the whole process to me using no English at all and visited a Samurai house. All in all a great weekend and it was good to get out of Hakuba for a while.

The last week at Hakuba was spent partying with all the friends I had made during my two month stay at Hakuba, where else but at the local Tracks Bar. I performed a few songs on guitar during a gig with two other Australian boys I befriended and it went down pretty well. The week before the place had a group of African drummers and dancers perform (well, they were Japanese, but the style was African) and it was amazing. I don't think I could compare, but I gave it my best shot, haha. I also spent my last week snowboarding almost every day, as we had a good dump of snow the week before, probably the last for the season. I was doing intermediate runs by the end and even attempted a few little jumps. Once you finally get the hang of this stuff, I can see how it could be so addictive.

So now I'm in Nishio, a small town by Japanese standards about one hour from Nagoya. We were met by most of Mayumi's extended family and sat down on the floor in the  lounge room to a massive feast of sashimi (raw fish), suki-yaki (beef, cabbage, mushrooms, etc, cooked in a big hot pot on the table), kani (crab), mussels, sushi and Asahi beer. Despite not speaking much English, the family was soooo lovely and I spent the night being plied with sake by her father and helping her niece with her English. The next day we went to a public pool in Nishio for a swim, which was similar to a pool experience in Australia, except they have little rules that are different. For example, every hour we had to get out of the pool for ten minutes to rest, then before getting back in, we all had to do some aerobics stretches to funny music. Everyone would be just standing around in their bathers doing the stretches which everyone seemed to know off by heart. I was laughing so much I couldn't do them properly. That night we had dinner in Nagoya at Shooters, an American-style restaurant owned by the same people that own Aqua Alpine, the hotel I worked at in Hakuba.

Yesterday four of us girls and Mayumi's mum and her friend got dressed in kimono and went to a tea ceremony. Now, I say "dressed in kimono" as if it was as easy as just putting one on, but man is there a process involved. It's like wrapping a really, really, really fancy and intricate present. So many layers and ties and everything. Her mum was also nice enough to do our hair for us and supply some special shoes and socks (I forget the technical names). It took us a few hours to get ready, then the tea ceremony lasted about 20 minutes. The tea ceremony was full of old ladies, and a couple of old men who were all fascinated by the gaijin in the kimono. We had to kneel on the floor (which by the way, really hurt after a while. I couldn't feel my legs after about 5 minutes, but looking around at all the Japanese ladies who were 3 times my age, they seemed to be fine, so I just endured it. Japanese people must have bodies made for this stuff...) while ladies in kimono served us rice sweets and green tea in bowls. It was fun. Then we showed off our kimono at a sushi train restaurant where we stuffed ourselves full of sushi delivered by bullet train. I understand how Japanese people stay so thin - the obi (the band around the kimono) is so tight on a kimono that you can't eat too much. That night, after another feast on the floor in the lounge room of okonami-yaki, Mayumi's dad took us to karaoke where we sang English and Japanese songs in a private room until 12:30.

Mayumi's family has been so hospitable and lovely since we got here on Monday night, it makes me a little sad that my time here in Japan is soon coming to an end. But I am so glad I have had the rare opportunity to experience every day Japanese life and the kindness and hospitality of these people who have made me realise that my first impression of Japanese people as being introverted and shy was just that, an impression.

Just one week to go....

Love Megan