Impressions of Japan

For the first time this year, today Bangkok citizens felt the first cool breeze of the upcoming winter season. Last year we barely had a day of cool weather, this year seems promising. Since early morning, the sun was out but instead of being hot and humid, it was wonderfully cool averaging around 25 degrees celsius. Oh how I love this weather. The entire city feels like it is airconditioned. This cool air of autumn is one of my favorite times during the years and always makes me happy. It reminds me of the beautiful autumn colours, hiking in the Shenandoah Mountains last year, or in the Austrian countryside. It’s always so relaxing and pleasurable after the summer rush and energy. Then Thanksgiving arrives and the festivities begin. Of course it also reminds me of my recent trip to Japan when all the shops started putting everything up for Autumn and it made me think about what were my impressions of Japan?

I’ve been back for almost a week now and yet I experienced so much during those nine days in Japan that I feel like a part of myself has evolved. When I look back on my life I realize that its the “events” or “experiences” we often have during “vacations” or “holidays” that we remember. (And amazingly, those are roughly only two weeks out of the entire year.) They touch us more than the other 350 or so days of the year when we live our daily lives.

So what impressions did I get from my trip to Japan? Many things. I’ve mentioned about the beauty of the shrines, the peacefulness of the zen gardens and how wonderful the foods are, so today its about the people and the culture.

My first impression of Japan upon arrival was that Japan was similar to Germany. If you are like most other people I’ve said that to, your reaction would probably go like this: “What? How can they be similar?” What struck me first was the orderliness of everything and yes, the Germans are known for being very orderly. Even if you are standing on a deserted road waiting to cross the road, and the light flashes red, you would not cross. You would wait until the you get the “green” light to go. I remember that during my trip to Germany last spring. It was funny, but its good. It’s great to be in order and follow the rules. In Thailand, people would have crossed long ago. The Japanese are equally orderly, but somehow I feel that it is more intense than Germany. It could be that because there is less land, less space, there is more of a need to be orderly. Also, the announcements on the JR trains and subways kept reminding us to turn off our cellphones. I’ve never heard that on any other metro system.

Not only is the “orderliness” of Japan similar to Germany, but also the architecture of their houses. I’m not talking about the shogun palaces or the shrines, but the normal everyday homes people live in. Mostly rebuilt after the second world war, they are all very “practical” and “efficient.” No nonsense kind of houses where simplicity is key. Due to lack of space in the cities, the houses would all be square boxes, with square windows, and equally square cars. The cars sold in japan are tailored to fit into the tiniest alleys and houses. It’s amazing. Cars have square noses and square trunks. I even spotted a tiny machine fixing the road in an alley.

My second impression was that the people in Japan are always so considerate of everyone else. I love it. If you are taking a photo, the Japanese would not walk right into your picture frame, but instead wait for you to finish taking the picture or walk around you. When taking the escalator, everyone would stand to the left in Tokyo and let others in a rush walk pass you on the right. In trains and public areas, no loud voices, shouting or excessive talking on mobile phones is spotted. Sounds turned off, everyone is just looking quietly at their mobile screens clicking away. I wonder what it is everyone is doing with their mobile phones.

Other than people’s behavior, you can also see how all the buildings under construction are completely wrapped up so that dust would not escape out to disturb those around them. Noise pollution is so low, my ears grinned with happiness from the silence. No construction was heard, cars were all silent, and there weren’t people blowing their whistle non-stop. This is something I think we should ban in Thailand. Really, do guards blowing whistles make me park any faster or help move anyone around faster? No. In fact, it makes me slower as I have to concentrate and block out the whistle sound from my ears.

Another impression I had of Japan was how high quality everything was. You can tell by just observing the clothes everyone wears. They exude style, fashion and quality. Everyone looked elegant and their clothes were all crisp and clean. Ladies were elegant, youngsters fashionable and men serious. I was told that they have fashion magazines for every age group: 20-30years, 30-40 years, etc… and you dressed according to your age. You wouldn’t see people going around with an oily face and worn out clothes. Although elegant and beautiful, they were also somewhat conservative. I suppose this reflects the culture where once married, females are expected to remain at home to look after the house and children. It reminds me of Imperial Austria. Viennese people are also very elegant with their gloves and hats.

Lastly, (before this gets too long and makes you too sleepy) I have to say that my ending impression of Japan is that it is truly the land of the samurais and shoguns. Although they no longer exist, the sense of orderliness and respect remains very high. There are many forms of “politeness” in the Japanese language, similar to the the Thai language which sets your place in the world. Depending on whom you talk to, you are to adapt your language. It makes life easier knowing where you are.

The culture is fascinating. Japan is fascinating. I love it and truly enjoyed my time there and hope to one day be able to go back to learn more about this wonderful land of the samurais, if not just to eat their delicious food and refill my lungs with fresh air. Like all trips and vacations, this one will forever be embedded in my mind for years to come and one day decades from now, I’ll tell my grandchildren (if I have any) that I went to Japan the land of the Shogun, saw the beauty of the place and met their people. Sayonara.

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Pray at Senso-ji Temple (Asakusa), Meditate in the Garden.

 
The Thunder Gate
After we eat at Tokyo, we go pray.  Somehow this sequence reminds me of the novel Eat, Pray, Love.  As a first time visitor to Tokyo, I had to go see Tokyo’s oldest and most significant temple, the Sensoji-temple or also known as the Asakusa.
 
 
The temple is dedicated to Guan Yin or the Goddess of Mercy and is supposed to have first been built in 645.  Although most buildings have been destroyed during the World War, they have all been rebuilt and it continues to be an important temple in Tokyo.  People still worship and pray at this temple.  While I was there, I witnessed a ceremony taking place with a few monks but I wasn’t able to ascertain what the ceremony was about.

 

It’s a fun place to visit even if you’ve been to a dozen shrines already.  I particularly enjoyed seeing how this place of worship just suddenly appears to you walking down the street.  The entrance is dominated by an enormous “Thunder Gate” under which hangs an equally gigantic paper lantern.  It’s supposed to be painted like thunder and lightning.  The gate and entrance, coupled with the massive crowds of tourists and locals alike is feast for the eyes.  The energy is just buzzing all around the place.  It’s so international, I spy several tour groups while I’m there.  One can get a little dizy but you’ll find peace once you reach the temple.

The Nakamise-Dori
I particularly enjoyed the Nakamise-Dori which is a shopping street centuries old lining your way towards the temple.  While I was there, to signify autumn all the trees lining the path were dressed in paper golden leaves.  Beautiful.  Seasons are important in Japan.  The street is filled with shops selling japanese souvenirs from postcards to yukatas. Snacks are sold too, but they have a season.  Autumn is the time for potatoes, pumpkins and chestnuts.  I wonder what is sold during other seasons of the year.  
Once you reach the temple you can pray and even ask the Oracle any questions you have. Of course its all in japanese 🙂  My book tells me there are a 100 answers so it must be pretty precise!

 

The most enjoyable part of the temple visit though was walking through the quiet and meditative garden just towards the right of the temple.  It’s so quiet and calm in this garden, that I somehow feel like I’ve stepped into another world.  It’s hard to believe that this garden is only a few steps away from the busy temple front.  It’s a traditional japanese garden complete with japanese maple trees, a pond filled with healthy red carp and a japanese bridge to finish the landscape.  Towering over the garden you have a beautiful view of the 5-storey pagoda.  All this is in a tiny little area.  Small yet it is enough to give one peace of mind after walking down the busy shopping street.  It’s amazing how much power these gardens can have over you.  Perhaps we should all have such a little garden in our homes or offices.

The Japanese Garden

Kaiten-sushi at Ueno, Tokyo

In Tokyo, I discovered quite by accident an unexpectedly good kaiten sushi place on my way to visit the Asakusa.  I had to change trains at Ueno and I was hungry, so I walked out the station to find something to eat.  It wasn’t the best sushi on earth, but it was definitely worth the price and extremely satisfying.  The salmon just melted in my mouth.  I discovered this little kaiten-sushi or conveyor belt sushi place called Oedo, just outside Ueno Station on a walking street opposite the station.  It’s built under the train tracks so it’s a tiny little place. 

Anyways, the wonderful thing is that this kaiten sushi place offers everything at one price.  All the sushi and rolls are priced at 126yen or just $1.5 !!  Absolutely wonderful.  Now it not only had salmon, grilled, salmon, but it also had yellow tail, eel, tuna, shrimp and just about anything you could think of.  Of course no toro nor sea urchin, that would be too wonderful.   I had two servings of the grilled salmon.  It was so fresh it melted in my mouth.  Oh I wish I could just hop out to have it again.

I wouldn’t mind going back there at all.  In fact, if I had more days in Tokyo, I would go back to eat there.  Next to me on one side was a man who really just sat there enjoying his meal.  He sat alone and just continued to pile up the dishes.  He sat there with a little grin and cared not what others were eating.  He asked the chef for special ones so he didn’t have to wait for the belt to come around.  Personal service. But since I don’t speak japanese you just have to do it the traditional way and pick up whatever you want to eat from the conveyor belt.  I love it, I get to sit there watching the food roll by and debate what I shall have for my next bite.

At the end of the meal, a lady comes around to count your dishes and tell you how much it costs.  It was so inexpensive I could hardly believe it.  The tea and wasabi was of course included already.  My extremely satisfying meal cost a mere 500yen or $6.  Now that’s even cheaper than what I can have in Thailand!  Itadakimasu!

Toro and Uni at Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market

 
Menu No. 1, Toro, Tuna, and Uni

What is a holiday if you don’t allow yourself to enjoy a little bit of eating? Japan is heaven for Japanese food lovers like me, so you have to eat and enjoy yourself while you’re there.  What I always tell myself is this:  eat whatever you want, beware of portion size, and know the consequences.  As long as you are willing to admit the consequences from too much eating, then go ahead and enjoy yourself.  I did, and one of my favorite finds during this trip was at the Tsukiji Fish Market.

As any food lover, I wanted to bare witness to the fish auctions that take place at the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world: Tsukiji Fish Market.  I wanted to see tuna, salmon, sea urchins, eel and all sorts of food being auctioned away, but this time I have to admit I couldn’t wake up.  It was too early.  It would require me waking up at around 4am in the morning and getting myself out to the fish market by around 6am to make the first come first serve list. (It’s limited to only 140 visitors per day)   I will, however, go back.  I have yet to see Japan dressed in pink with the famous cherry blossoms or robed in autumn’s finest colours of red and gold.   How beautiful it must be.

The counter where thou shall dine

 

Dreaming aside, I did manage to get myself some absolutely divine food at the Tsukiji market.  If you don’t make it to the auctions, you can always go there for lunch.  Just make sure you don’t go too late.  Most restaurants open from 6.30 hours and close at around 13.30 hours.  The most value for money ones also have long lines, but the wait is well worth it.

Just outside the Tsukijishijō Station towards the right of the fish market there is an area surrounded by little shop houses. I passed shops selling razor-sharp knives, cooking utensils but most importantly there were many eating houses to choose from.  Don’t expect spacious ones with proper seating and service, these are the traditional japanese eating houses with a long kitchen and equally long counter for which the customers are to be seated.  The one I sat at was so crammed, that if you pulled out your seat to get more leg space, other customers would not be able to walk behind you to their seat.  I dared not move an inch.

There were quite a number of eating houses and take-out places, but I wanted to have sashimi, raw fish and they all looked so good.  I decided to go for the one with a long line of locals. There were two equally good looking ones next to each other so I just decided to choose the one specializing in Toro (fatty tuna) and sea urchin (uni).  I’ve had them before, but in miniscule portions since they are so expensive.  At this restaurant, they were served in larged portions over rice with accompanying soup and side dish.  Everything for only 1,800 yen or only roughly $23.  Now that’s a good deal.    If you don’t want toro or sea urchin, they also serve alaskan crab and shrimp,  so you can have whatever you desire.

Now the only thing with this place is you have to eat fast.  You pre-order your dish while waiting in line.  Once you get your seat, you immediately get served your food and within a few minutes you are to finish it.  There is no time limit, but you start feeling the pressure when the person sitting besides you arrives later, finishes before you and leaves in such a rush that you wonder if they have a train to catch.   Everyone rushes out so those standing by the door watching you eat can come in to have their turn.

People come to this place for no-nonsense food.  There’s no service, no ambiance, just plain good food.  And the great thing is that the locals go there.  The couple behind us told us they come often.  Its no wonder. I thoroughly enjoyed it too and wouldn’t mind standing in line again. The fish was so fresh, it just literally swam down my throat. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

Oh, I’m told the place is called “Nagaya” and it’s next to a little shop selling breakfast of toast and coffee on the right.  Also, for an extra 400 yen you can have more toro 🙂

I enjoyed every meal I had, but then I love Japanese food. I could eat it everyday and not get bored at all.  I love their raw fish, their udon, ramen, fried foods and all so delicate japanese snacks.  I love the way they present their food and I admire the amount of detail they put into every bite.  It’s funny how I can grow to love japanese food so much,  especially when I am told that in my younger days the thought of eating raw fish just made me squirm.  It was all just too “exotic” for me back then.

 

Bustling Tokyo: Shinjuku Station

 
Tokyo’s Underground System

After the silent Shinkansen ride where everyone was quiet, and extremely orderly, I arrived in Tokyo.  The capital of Japan, Tokyo was a completely different story from Osaka, Kyoto and Nara.  With a population of 13 million people it was bustling with people.  Everywhere I went, I was surrounded by people.

 
At first glance of the underground map, I thought I was looking at a painting by Jackson Pollock with coloured lines and dots scattered all around the page in seemingly random patterns.  It was a piece of art in itself, but upon close study of it, you realize that there was really quite a lot of sense in all this chaos and a pattern emerged.  This combination of JR trains, Toei Line Trains, or Tokyo Metro Line allowed you to go anywhere you wanted to.  It is no wonder that Japan has one of the most extensive network of surface lines in the world.
 
I stopped at Shinjuku station to see what this shopping area was all about and was completely at awe at the amount of people bustling here and there under the neon lights, each hurrying to reach their destination, each knowing exactly where to go, each with their own life.  I feel like this could easily be made into a movie.  Two random lives, commuting to work in Tokyo, crossing paths in Shinjuku to someday meet and begin a whole new life story.
Who knows, these strangers turned friends could have sat or stood next to each other before, but never recognized each other.  Life is so fascinating.  It must have happened I am sure.
People, people, people
I stand in a corner dazed at the people rushing by, quietly on their way to their destination.  It’s not loud or noisy with continuous announcements on the speaker system, people in Japan are very considerate of each other.  All you hear is the sound of hundreds of shoes interacting with the paved floor, clothes fluttering by, machines opening and closing their little gates, and soft whispers of people traveling together.
 
I stand in a quiet corner and am reminded of a scene from Murakami’s book where Okada sits by watching people at Shinjuku station.  I wonder if people passing by remember the hundreds of faces they saw today.  I wonder if there is someone else watching me like I am watching them. 

I start to grow dizzy and come back to reality and discover that Shinjuku station  is the busiest train station in the world used by roughly 3.6 million people a day.  (This is 2007 data, more people must be using it now!)  With 200 exits Shinjuku is also in the Guinness book of World Records.  Can you believe that?  I wonder how many people like me got lost and took the wrong exit and have to find their way back underground.

Standing at Shinjuku station I am reminded that each of our lives like others’ here is one of the billions of lives on this earth.  Each on our way, each on our own path, random yet with a pattern. Each with an end, and each with a story of one’s own.

The Silent Shinkansen Train

This morning I rode the famous “bullet train” or Shinkansen for the first time from Osaka to Tokyo. It was fun and exciting. This train is supposed to be one of the fastest trains in the world with speeds averaging around 300 km per hour and one so punctual it’s stressful.

I stress that I’ll miss the train or not get on the train in time. They only stop for 3 minutes at the stop. 3 minutes exactly. Not 4 nor 5 but 3 minutes. 3 simple minutes. How did they determine it?

I get to the train station early so as not to stress. It’s a good decision as it allows me to wander around, take pictures and get myself to the platform.

I’m immediately impressed by how organized and clean everything is. I thought the Germans were organized but not as much as Japan.

The platform’s signs allow me to know exactly where I am to stand wait. I reserved seats so the ticket tells me clearly what bogey and seat number I am to take. These are all clearly defined on the platform floor and on the clear gates that separate the platform from the train rails.

A few minutes before the train arrives a group of Japanese businessmen arrive. All are in dark suits, white shirts and a somber tie falls from their neck. Black shoes shine out. In their hands are only black and brown bags. Their faces are without clear expression. Not a smile is to be seen. They are serious these Japanese businessmen. Too serious for me.

After uniformed school children flow out of the train in their navy blue uniforms and knee high socks it’s time to get in. The businessmen and I enter the train in an orderly line.

It’s funny. As if synchronized all these men in black go to their seats, take off their jackets, flip open the clothes hook, hang up the jacket and fall quietly into their seats. I feel like I’m taking part in a strange silent movie.

It’s so quiet. The bogey is full but I can barely hear my neighbours. My ears have yearned for silence in noisy Bangkok but Japan is just unnervingly quiet.

The train is so quiet and stable when I close my eyes I feel like I’m all alone in the middle of nowhere. I could be in a zen temple staring out into the sea of eternity. I could be high up in the mountains.

But no. When I open my eyes and wake up from my nap I find myself surrounded by at least 50 people and the person sitting on the row next to me has changed. I didn’t hear a thing. This is unusual for me.

I look around and see the man nearest to me staring at an incredibly complicated looking sheet of paper filled with lines and lines and Japanese characters. I guess he’s an engineer of sorts.

I sit there in my seat taking everything in and trying not to make a noise in this deep silence. It’s great but it requires getting used to. I am relieved when we pull into Tokyo at exactly 1333 hours and hear some noise. Music to my ears.

I get off the silent movie and set out to explore Tokyo.

Kobe: Strolling Along the Quaint Kitano Hillside

The Moegi House (American Consulate)

Not far from Osaka, Kobe is a city of approximately 1.5 million inhabitants and it is said to be one of the most attractive cities in Japan.  I thought it was a very “cute” and quaint city especially if you go walk around the neighbourhood of Kitano where there is a uniquely European-American atmosphere.  Very different from all the shrines, castles and small wooden houses found elsewhere.

On this hillside, away from the hustle and bustle of centre city where all the shopping and businesses are located, I feel like I have just travelled to a little hillside town in the US or somewhere in Europe.  I walk up some steps and find myself in a little plaza where ice-cream shops and cake shops adorn the place.  I could be in Germany, I remember seeing a small area like this when I was last in Frankfurt, the only difference is that the ice-cream is all Japanese style, soft served in a cone and green-tea flavored and the people eating it are japanese.

I walk further up the hill, passing little alleys along the way and up an extremely high flight of steps I suddenly find myself in a round plaza surrounded by an American styled house and another German styled house.  There are wooden seats and gardens that bring me back to the western world.  For awhile I forget that I’m in Japan.  There are bronze statues of jazz musicans, and sounds of water splashing around from the fountains.  It’s a beautiful and calm place.  Perfect for weddings and wedding pictures.

Apparently this place is very popular among the Japanese for foreign-style weddings and photo-taking.  I even spot a couple making a video while I’m there.

The Weathercock House

I go to the tourist information, where I’m greeted with much ado by the staff there.  They give me maps, guidebooks and even free postcards!  I’m touched and try to practice a bit of Japanese, but all I end up saying is “Arigato gozaimasu.” (Thank you very much)  I must learn more japanese.

These houses I discover, were previously homes of the American Consulate, a German businessmen, and other expatriates who lived here when Kobe was first open for trade with the western world.  Kobe is a busy port town and this was where trade flourished 200 years ago.   It’s amazing this hillside area survived the 1995 Hanshin earthquake where so much was destroyed.  I’m happy it did.
If you are fit and healthy, there are quite a few houses to see up a very steep alley such as the Austrian, Holland house where they even sell some Viennese torte and play mozart.  It makes me nostalgic for Vienna.  In summer, you can sit and have some drinks, but now its quiet and there are only a few elderly japanese walking the route.

The main road in this hillside town is so quaint.  American styled houses with large terraces and gardens are now converted into cute cafes and others have found new life as a wedding spot.  It’s perfect, as long as you don’t invite hundreds and hundreds of guests.   However, if you live in the US and Europe, this hillside might not be so attractive, but rather a nice place for a stroll.

I find my way back to Osaka and realize that Kobe isn’t just about the Kobe Beef.   It has evolved so much and still today many expatriates still live there and work in Osaka.  It’s that close.  I want to trek up to see the picturesque waterfall of Nunobiki Falls which apparently has been in many japanese literature but that will have to wait for another trip.

US consulate staff house