Tag Archives: Japan

Nature, Inside and Out

“How can we possibly top the mosquito nets for excitement?” Lynn asked.

“I was disappointed it wasn’t actually a museum,” I replied.

We had two more small museums to see; both period houses.  We passed a store selling exquisite paper lanterns, one of which was decorated with a swastika.  I realize the symbol predates the Nazi era by hundreds—or thousands?—of years—I don’t want to Google swastika to find out.  It symbolizes good luck or some such, not “let’s kill all the Jews!”

But it was still disconcerting to see it here and there throughout Japan.

The houses are blended in my memory now.  They were built around a central courtyard with a garden; you could see the garden from almost every room.

As in the Imperial Palace in Nikko, I was struck by the simplicity. These alcoves, or tokonoma, are found in reception rooms—in America we would say living rooms. They contain a calligraphy verse and a flower arrangement for your guests to admire and contemplate.

Right now I am looking around my living room.  The focal point is probably the TV.  I don’t like having a TV in my living room but there’s nowhere else to put it.  There are 13 plants, a couch with six colorful throw pillows and a blanket, two chairs, three lamps, end tables, three mismatched area rugs, about 20 pieces of art, and piles of newspapers, magazines, and books.  There’s my desk, my bike, four pairs of footwear, a bag of plastic bags, a bag for the Goodwill, and a coat thrown over a chair.

And the bloody curio cabinet, still standing empty.  I’m trying to sell it on Craig’s List but so far no takers.

My house isn’t particularly “American” in style.  If it was, the TV would be twice as large and there would be oversized reclining chairs.  I like my place, but Japan did make me wonder if I could get rid of more stuff.

The second house had a deer painted on the screens in the front room.  We were the only visitors and the volunteer staffing the place insisted on taking photos of us.  I’m glad she did.  Neither Lynn nor I are in to selfies, which you may appreciate.  But sometimes I’ve returned from a trip and realized I haven’t got one photo of the two of us.

This was the cooking set up in the larger house.  There was no signage so I don’t know what to say except it resembles an Aga, the British range that has no dials, just hot and warm burners and ovens.

You won’t be able to read this wall calendar that was hanging near the front door, but delineates the 24 seasons of the year.  That’s right—each season is measured in weeks instead of months.

From Nippon.com: The 24 divisions are split again into three for a total of 72  that last around five days. The names were originally taken from China, but they did not always match up with the local climate. In Japan, they were eventually rewritten in 1685 by the court astronomer. They offer a poetic journey through the Japanese year in which the land awakens and blooms with life and activity before returning to slumber.

There was also a tree festooned with colorful ribbons and origami and trinkets; we had noticed these here and there.

Keiko’s mom would explain to me the following week that this was for the upcoming Tanabata festival.  Again, thanks to Nippon.com, this charming explanation:

Tanabata is one of Japan’s five traditional seasonal festivals, originating in China and first observed in Japan by the ancient imperial court. The stellar holiday centers on the stars Vega and Altair in the constellations Lyra and Aquila. Following the ancient Chinese lunar calendar, the festival marks the meeting of Orihime (Vega), the weaver star and patron of silk farming, and Hikoboshi (Altair), the cowherd star and agricultural messenger.  In Japan, the lovers are celebrated with lively decorations and wishes written on long, narrow strips of colored paper. As the date approaches, these and other vibrant decorations hung from tree branches enliven the decor of homes, shopping arcades, train stations, and other public spaces.

Decorated trees … sound familiar?

Museums and Mosquitos

“A mosquito net museum?”  Lynn had just rattled that off along with a number of other museums in Naramachi.

“It’s called a mosquito net museum on this map, but a mosquito net shop on this one,” she explained, gesturing to the area map and her own paper version.  “Either way it sounds terribly exciting.”

“Let’s go to whichever museum we can find first,” I suggested.  It was pouring—one of those hard, slanting rains that soaks your feet and legs despite your umbrella.

We found the calligraphy museum, a low, modern building obviously purpose-built to protect its contents.  We paid the paltry admission fee—I think it was $1.50—and were directed to the first floor—what we Americans call the second floor.  We were the only visitors.

A table laden with colorful posters about art exhibits and performances around town caught our eye.  We each slid a couple in our bags.

“I always do this—pick up beautiful free things and take them home, only to find it will cost $100 to get them framed.”  Knowing this, I later slipped them into a recycling bin.

The exhibit room was dark but lighted up as we entered.

“Oh, I see, it’s just one room,” Lynn remarked.  And it was—just one room with about 10 pieces of calligraphy by “the great calligrapher Kason Sugioka.”  The whole building was dedicated to him.  No photos were allowed but I found this image of one of his works online.

My impulse was to say, “Check!” turn on my heels, and move on to the next museum.  But that would have felt disrespectful.  So we sat on benches and looked at the pieces—really tried to see them.  It was weird to be in a small silent room contemplating what—to me—looked like scribbles.

“I’m trying to see what is so special or different about his work,” I whispered to Lynn, “But I am obviously too much of a philistine.”

“Me too,” she replied.

I was being serious.  If enough people went to the trouble of building and maintaining a whole building in honor of this guy, he must be something very special.  I wondered how many years it would take of practicing or looking at calligraphy in order to appreciate the differences.  Maybe some people walked into this room and went “Wow!  These are so obviously superior!”

There was a second room downstairs that displayed works by other calligraphers in honor of Sugioka.  One was a woman, that’s all I remember.

There was a reference library, and a children’s corner where kids could try their hands at calligraphy.  Lynn and I hovered over it and exchanged glances that said, “Should we try it?  No!!”

“At this rate we’ll be done for the day by noon,” Lynn said as we exited.

But then we found the toy museum, which was delightful.  We were the only visitors.  This museum, which was free, had two rooms.  Low tables were set up with antique toys.

A volunteer demonstrated each toy.  Some were extremely simple, like the cup and ball.

I have to say, this place elicited my inner kid, which is not a frequent occurrence and felt great.

After a half hour of play, it was time for lunch.  Since it was still pouring, we stepped into the first place we found.

“I wouldn’t recommend the hot sand and pizza,” Lynn cautioned.

“No … sounds hard on the teeth.”

But they had a great set lunch for about $12.  I would call it “Japanese nouveau cuisine meets antioxidant blowout.”


We drank tea and talked for an hour, then stumbled upon the mosquito net shop.  As the name implies, it sold mosquito nets of all shapes and colors.  The one below is similar to ones Lynn and I have slept under in malarial regions.

“Which makes me wonder,” I said, “I understood I wouldn’t need Malarone in Japan.  And I haven’t noticed any mosquitoes here.”

“Yes, why is there a whole shop dedicated to mosquito nets?” Lynn asked.  The owner lurked behind a mosquito net, keeping an eye on us but making clear he was not interested in talking, so we will never know.

Signs and Mysteries

3am.  Lynn was snoring lightly.  I crammed in some earplugs and eventually got back to sleep, my mind awhirl with thoughts about my next move.

7am.  Lynn was calling, “Anne, wake up, your alarm is going.”

“Aww, I’m sorry!” I said as I rolled out of bed for a scheduled call with my family. I made a mental note to change my alarm from harp music to something easier to hear with earplugs.

The family was gathered for a birthday, and they passed Vince’s phone around.  I got to see an extreme close-up of my mom’s nose and then of her husband’s ear.  They don’t quite get how it works.  Some day that will be me.

A couple hours later Lynn and I were in a covered mall in Naramachi, the neighborhood near our hotel.  On our first day, we hadn’t found the “atmospheric” sections but after wandering farther we got why the guides promoted it.  Like most places except Disneyland, it is a patchwork of old and new.

Most everything was closed.  We tried to decipher the directory.

“I hope they don’t really sell owls,” Lynn the animal lover said.

“Tofu n’ donuts,” I read.  “‘The tofu donuts incident’? What the…”

“Maybe it means the tofu donuts experience?” Lynn posited, “or maybe it’s a reference to the war of the tofu and donuts, much like they refer to World War II as the ‘unfortunate period.’”

“That’s pants!” I riffed, using the British slang word for something that’s all wrong.  “And what do pants have to do with having a golden day?”

“It doesn’t bear thinking about!” Lynn shuddered as she walked away.

The only place open was a grocery, so we had a gander and I bought seaweed and bonito and a giant sushi takeaway for breakfast.  We sat in an area with picnic tables while I ate.  “Sushi for breakfast would be a fish too far,” Lynn said.  “Give me kippers or nothing.”

There were three coffee shops on the periphery of the seating area, but none were open and no signs indicated opening hours.

After I ate my sushi like a starving shark, we walked until we found a restaurant that was open.

“The selection doesn’t look very appetizing,” I commented.

“But it’s open,” Lynn said.  “How bad could it be?

The place was run by a husband and wife team; he was the cook and server and she worked the register, which was festooned with tree branches decorated with tiny colorful ribbons and flags.  There was only one other customer; he was smoking and reading a newspaper.

The proprietor handed us menus, saying, “No English,” apologetically.  “No worries,” Lynn replied, giving him a big smile.

The pictures were the same as on the sign board outside.  “So do you want red, tan, or white food this morning?” I asked her.  The proprietor returned and Lynn pointed to sandwiches, then coffee.  I only wanted coffee, which caused confusion.  There was much holding up of fingers and nodding and smiling and pointing.  Five minutes later he brought two huge plates of sandwiches and two bitter coffees and a tiny pitcher of gooey sugary white stuff.

The sandwiches were like the ones we’d been served on our first day at the Nara Hotel—they seemed to manifest the Japanese idea of what westerners liked—soft, white bread with the thinnest slices of cucumber and ham slathered with mayonnaise, crusts removed and cut into triangles.

I transferred half of mine onto Lynn’s plate when she was done so they would think we both ate half our food.

Outside, the mall was now bustling.  I found a knife shop where I bought what I hoped would be a good knife for Vince.  We stopped and ogled a bun-making operation which used something like the machine below.

I almost took a photo, then thought, “They’re not in the business of providing photo opps; they’re out to sell buns!”  So I bought a half dozen green buns filled with bean paste and ate one, then ate them all.

“Where to start?” Lynn mused as we consulted the area map. “The calligraphy museum, the toy museum, the period houses, or the mosquito net museum?”

Crusty and Wiped

The restaurant that my guidebook had recommended for lunch specialized in kamameshi, a local fare.  The place was packed and there were a dozen people crammed into the entry way waiting for a table.  A server thrust menus at us and ordered, “You pick food before you get table!”

The menu was simple; I ordered crab and Lynn ordered shrimp kamameshi.  What is kamameshi, you ask?  We too wondered as we read the eating instructions.

“It’s very complicated,” Lynn said.

“This is the important part,” I read, “after scooping out your first serving, make sure you place the lid back onto the iron pot. Remember to take the paddle out to ensure a tight seal—this is the key to delicious okoge!”

“What’s okoge?”

“I guess we’re going to find out.”

“There are certainly lots of exclamation marks,” Lynn counted, “I hope it lives up to the exciting taste experience implied herein.”

To be honest it was just okay.  Okoge turned out to be rice that is crusted onto the side of the pot.

A boy of around seven was sitting with his family at another table, playing a game on some device.  The device was not on silent and a constant refrain of “bloop, bloop, BLOOPITY BLING bing bing bing” filled the restaurant.  I won’t say what nationality the family was.  Everyone in the place, including the servers, were staring daggers at them but they were oblivious.

After lunch we found Isuin Garden, one of two “famous” gardens Lynn had bookmarked to visit in Nara.  At the entryway, a man in a pink hat bowed and introduced himself as a volunteer tour guide, then set off at a brisk pace.  Lynn and I barely had time to exchange glances that said, “Please, no!” before we were forced to march after him.

Now, when I speak Spanish it is at a very slow pace because I know my Spanish isn’t great.  Our guide, whose English was just okay, didn’t let that slow him down.  He spoke a blue streak while pointing and waving and telling jokes—we thought they were jokes because he laughed, so we laughed too—it would have felt rude not to.  He was delightful, and we got a bonus aerobic workout racing up and down hills and over bridges and across stepping stones.

After about 20 minutes he rather abruptly bowed and raced off, leaving us at the far end of the garden, presumably to return to the entry and collect another group of unsuspecting tourists.  Lynn and I wandered, off leash.

I was mesmerized by this 100-year-old glass in the tea house.  The photo doesn’t do it justice, but it was slightly wavy.  How wonderful that it has survived time, earthquakes, and war.

This lady seemed happy to have me include her in my photo, to give a sense of scale.  Exquisite, isn’t it?

Lynn picked up more bamboo tricks she can try in her Scottish garden.

We consulted our maps and decided to walk to the art museum.  The heat was stultifying so it was slow progress.  We passed Nara City Hall, which we thought looked vaguely like a samurai helmet.

There was a gigantic gift shop next to city hall.  The art museum was closed, so we returned to the gift shop, where Lynn found saki for Richard.  I bought some rice crackers and stood outside feeling the sweat roll down my back while I noshed.  It was only about 3pm, but I had hit a wall.

Some travel days are like that.  You just can’t force yourself to do one more thing.

“Would you be okay with going back to the hotel to veg?” I asked Lynn.

“We did hike a mountain this morning,” she reminded me.

I bought a beer in the vending machine outside our room and drank it while reading, scrolling through social media, and watching news of the G20 Summit.  True to form, Trump was insulting the Japanese—his hosts and our ally.

Later, we ventured back up to the rooftop lounge.

“You came back!” our server from the previous night exclaimed.

“I’m not sure if he was pleased to see us, or shocked,” Lynn said after he seated us at “our” table.

Walking Wakakusa

A newspaper was deposited outside our hotel room door each morning.  All the news was about the G20 Summit taking place in Osaka just as I would be transiting through on my way to Koyasan.

“You might want to ask if there will be train disruptions,” Lynn suggested.  “Security will be massive since Trump will be there.”

I hadn’t heard that name for a couple weeks and now we would be in the same city, if briefly. Why couldn’t he stay in Washington and eat hamburgers?

At the station, the JR information people had no idea what the G20 Summit was, much less whether it would affect my itinerary.

“Well I tried,” I shrugged as we walked on to find breakfast.

“Oh, oh, let’s try here!” I enthused as we passed a vending machine restaurant.  “It’s on my list of quirky Japanese things to try.”

Vending machine restaurants are restaurants with vending machines at the entrance.  You pick out your meal and pay for it, get a ticket, then are seated at a table to await your order.  The idea is to streamline the order process, I guess.  They eliminate jobs for real people in the restaurant but must create jobs for coders in Tokyo.

There were three machines.  Lynn and I stood before them in some consternation, pressing buttons, feeding in coins, and collecting meal tickets while one after another, Japanese customers came and went at the third machine.

“I just want the standard Japanese brekky with smoked salmon, miso, and that rice and nori thing,” I said.  “There’s a picture of it but 530 yen?  That seems too cheap.”

“I just ordered five breakfasts … or none,” Lynn said.  “I really do not want a raw egg!”

So we each received a raw egg and slimy beans.

I took a close up so you can see the strings of slime in case you’ve never seen slimy bean strings.

Lynn flagged down the server, whose job was to deliver trays from the kitchen and collect tickets.

“Excuse me,” she said as she held up the plate with her raw egg, “could I have this cooked?”

No,” he said, and walked away.

“Well that was clear,” Lynn said.

Slimy beans are very nutritious, so I mixed mine with rice and miso, doused it all with soy sauce, and cleaned my plate.

Today we would need a good breakfast because we were hiking Mount Wakakusa.  “I really want to see the Kasu … gaya…ga…yama Primeval Forest.  Let’s hope we can just point to the name on the map and won’t have to pronounce it,” I said as we headed into the Information Office.  The green squiggly line on the map indicates the road to the top of the mountain, and no pedestrians are allowed on it.

It was recommended to us that we take a taxi to the top then walk down “the back way.”  This felt wimpy to me but once we were in the taxi it became clear we could never have walked up.  The narrow road really did squiggle, and at a very steep incline.  It would have taken hours to walk.

We enjoyed the views of the city and surrounding countryside from the mountaintop, then proceeded to walk down.

Thousands of uneven stone steps were interspersed with grassy slopes.  There was a kiosk, literally in the middle of nowhere, from which a man sold hiking passes.

“Once again, I will just say that I’m glad to be doing this while my knees are still good,” I tossed back to Lynn.

At the bottom there was a small kiosk staffed by a friendly woman who sold passes to hikers going up the way we’d come down.

I wondered at this sign.

What would it take for the mountaintop to not be available?

“Thank you for resisting the urge to roll down the slope,” Lynn said as she pointed to the list of don’ts.

We asked directions to Kauga Taisha Shrine which was supposedly nearby, but never found it.

It was lunchtime anyway.  We found the one restaurant I had on my list, and a good thing, too, because it was closing the next day for a year of renovation.

Forty for Ninety

“According to this,” I read to Lynn, my captive audience on the bed across the way, “Japanese are so accustomed to a specific Japanese way of doing things that they developed an extreme sensitivity to any deviation from the norm.

“Unexpected or nonstandard behavior not only disrupted the cultural imperative of harmony, it was extremely stressful and could be dangerous to the individuals concerned.

“Get a load of this—when Japanese businessmen first started coming to the west in the 50s and 60s, they found our ‘casual, chaotic’ behavior so shocking that some of them had to be whack-evac’d!”  That’s a term used in the NGO world, along with medivac and alc-a-vac.

“It could have been the large helpings of meat that westerners served them at every meal, too, it says here.  Japanese weren’t used to it.”

“And—this explains a lot!—Japanese behavior is so predictable that they almost have telepathy among themselves.”  I turned to Lynn to make sure she was listening.  “The Japanese … point to this ‘telepathy’ as one of the cultural characteristics that made their culture superior.”

“Interesting,” Lynn said. “What about dinner?  It’s getting on for six o’clock.”

“Want to take a cab somewhere?”

“But where?

“I’ve got the name of a restaurant written down somewhere, but I think it’s only open for lunch.  We could walk across the street to the convenience store and buy instant noodles.”

Lynn gave me a look that said “I am not an instant-noodles-in-the-room kind of person.”

“Let’s investigate the rooftop lounge with the $40 beers,” she suggested.  “That can’t be right.”

And it wasn’t.  But first, we stood looking at the board, working up courage to mount the stairs to the lounge.  What if a beer really did cost $40?  Should we ask first, prepared to walk out?  Would they feel complained against and maybe commit suicide?

To be clear, I don’t think suicide is a joking matter.  My own dad died of suicide (probably).  But I was quite certain no one was really going to commit suicide because tourists declined to pay $40 for a beer.

At the top of the stairs, the maître d’ handed us a menu on which was written in English, “All You Can Drink in 90 Minutes Set Meal, Y40000.”  Lynn and I exchanged excited glances.  It wasn’t a beer for $40, it was all you could drink and a meal for $40.

“Yes, this will do,” Lynn told the maître d’. We were led out onto a lawn with panoramic views of the city.  A few other tables were filled with Japanese.  Glasses of wine arrived with large plates of what I can only describe as Japanese tapas.  Piano music wafted from inside the lounge with great old hits like “As Time Goes By,” and “What a Wonderful World.”

The waiter returned after a few minutes and asked if we wanted anything else.

“More wine?” I held up my empty glass.  He looked a bit taken aback, but brought refills.

“They didn’t see us coming,” Lynn said.  We ate, drank, and watched the pinks and oranges of the sky turn into purple, blue, and black as we had one of our long discussions.  We talked about Richard’s mum, who had died recently, aged 99.  That led to talk about my mother and Lynn’s relations who are in their “twilight years.”

“It’s so depressing,” I commented.  “I need another glass of wine.”  This time the waiter looked amused as he refilled our glasses.

“I think he’s resigned himself to us, as westerners, being able to drink up the stock,” Lynn said.  “They’re probably placing bets in the kitchen on how many glasses we’ll drink.”

Lynn told a story about conducting a workshop at an employee retreat in Poland when she worked for Nokia; let’s just say it involved a different workplace drinking norm than in the UK or US.

All the other guests had left and our 90 minutes was up.”

Back in the room I read that we should have held our glasses with both hands as they were refilled.  “We missed our chance to demonstrate our exceptionally good manners and character.

“We’ve got two more nights to prove we’re not barbarians.”

Great Shakes n Buddha

The Okumura Commemorative Museum is sponsored by the Okumura Company, which makes earthquake protection systems for buildings.  This was the first of half a dozen tiny specialty museums we visited in Nara, which were one of the reasons I loved the city.

After being strapped into the simulator, the man below held up the card to the right and explained that I was about to experience the great such-and-such earthquake of 18–.  The chair shook violently sideways, slowed, shook again, etc.  He pointed to another location on the map and told me which one I would sample next.  This went on, with Lynn standing by giving me a devilish look.  She has done earthquakes—in particular aftershocks in the wake of the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia, where she worked for Oxfam.

The simulator was fun, like a carnival ride.  We were all laughing.  But you could imagine, if you were in your home when the jolts started and your ceiling was collapsing, it wouldn’t be fun at all.

Next our guide demonstrated how Okumura systems protect high-rise buildings.  The building on the left swayed back and forth precipitously when he pushed the “Earthquake” button, while the one on the right barely moved.  My very imperfect understanding is that builders employ something like ball bearings at the base of new construction.  When an earthquake hits, these buildings roll with the movement instead of resisting it—like the old analogy of a willow and an oak in a storm—one bends and survives, one is rigid and topples over.

Nara is famous for deer.  On our first foray from the hotel, we passed a reservoir and I pointed to the water’s edge.  “Look! A deer!  I wonder if we’ll see any more—I’d better take a picture.”

As our vista opened up onto the main park we could see gangs of deer everywhere, like Canadian Geese in a Minnesota park.

Vendors sold what looked like large Catholic communion wafers for tourists to feed to the deer.  The deer were aggressive; jostling each other, lunging at the wafers, and giving an occasional nip to any tourist who didn’t fork over a wafer fast enough.

Time for the main event—Todaiji Temple.  “It’s the largest wooden building in the world,” Lynn read from her guide book.  Yes, she often carries guidebooks in her capacious handbag.  Selfishly, this is convenient for me; she lugs the weight around and is a handy reference.

Todaiji from a distance appeared to be computer generated, it was so immense.

We had been walking for almost an hour in the heat so we rested on a bench in the shade before tackling the interior, which was heaving with school groups.

“The great Buddha is 15 metres high,” Lynn read.  I tried to do the math in my head but just now Googled it.  That’s almost 50 feet high.

“Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.”

“Charming,” I remarked as we hoisted ourselves onwards.  Near the entrance, Lynn snapped me ringing the bell.

A witch-like Bodhisattva glowered nearby.

Inside, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and memory sat to the left of the Great Buddha.  This may have explained all the school groups.

The kids seemed to be having more fun goofing around than praying for success in their exams.

Here they are posing before the Bodhisattva who presides over the six realms of rebirth.

This solicitation of funds to rebuild Notre Dame was touching.

These looked like murals but were statues guarding the Great Buddha.

We slogged back to the hotel, telling ourselves we would go out later for dinner.  On our respective beds, I interrupted whatever Lynn was doing on her phone to read from the “Etiquette Guide to Japan” I had purchased in Kyoto.

“Why didn’t I buy this a month ago?” I asked myself. “Even the mildest criticism, if not followed by apologies, could cause a Japanese person to commit suicide.

“I hope I haven’t left a trail of death in my wake!”