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


  1. first of all, you look GORGEOUS in your kimono. I wish i could see the back of your head to see how Mayumi's mom did your hair...
    It's cool to hear you also visited Kanazawa! It's not a town that hardly any gaijin frequent but it has some real nifty sights, doesn't it? I was there 3 years ago on a road trip from Tokyo to the East Sea. At the museum did you see the swimming pool you can go under?

    I think I can see that your two months in Japan has been enough to see underneath their Mask of Shyness. Keep looking and you might find they wear a different face for each occasion and person. The question is, does a "true face" exist?

    Glad to see you've gone from surviving to thriving in such a short time in Japan. All the best to you in your remaining days in my Second Homecountry
    (Korea's fast becoming my Third :)

  2. thanks Claire! the tea ceremony was totally one of the highlights of my trip I think, just dressing up in kimono was fun! I loved Kanazawa, everyone was so friendly and the gardens were gorgeous. I did see the swimming pool, i loved how some of the art was interactive, made it so much more interesting than just looking.

    i've definitely come a long way since those first few nights in Tokyo. I think Japan is one of those countries that grows on you slowly, like a cat. I'm glad i've had the opportunity to stay here long enough to see there's more than meets the eye :P