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Published: April 13th 2016
…would you see a dog – and not only the micro-sized beauty-accessory version – dressed up in a raincoat against the downpour, or sporting a natty jacket and trousers (or skirt/dress for girl-dogs, of course) when heading out for its constitutional. I’m told some even wear socks. And then there was the small collie-like hound that I saw having its paws thoroughly washed after it had trotted across the car park’s dry Tarmac, before being lovingly carried back to the car (lest it dirty the now clean paws) where it was tenderly buckled into its seat belt. I can just imagine the reaction of one of my dogs-in-law if anyone were ever to try and constrain her ability to keep an eye on the driver and the outside world in such a manner.
…or a rabbit on a lead as its owner sauntered around a major attraction. Leporine paws clearly aren’t up to such distances because it wasn’t much later that we saw it being carried, its basket dangling emptily from its owner’s shoulder.
…wedding parties touring the selected sight – temple, palace, lookout, park – en masse to ensure the bridal couple’s wedding photographs bear no locational resemblance
yup, he's big
a sumo wrestler on the shinkansen (bullet train)
to where they had already tied or might be about to tie the knot. This was no quick process. At the spectacular Itsukushima-jinja on the island of Miyajima, the bridal couple were ferried around in a gleaming black rickshaw, seemingly oblivious of the crowds of tourists that this iconic temple complex attracts. At appropriate points, an immaculately kimono-ed lady would materialise to aid the bride’s descent from the rickshaw, and then tweak the sumptuous and weighty white kimono into perfect shape. Later, this white lavishness would be replaced by red lavishness. We wondered how many suitcases were required to transport this lot, and sympathised with the perma-bored little girl in the corner of the formal pictures. The groom’s outfit was also complicated, but, in his subdued greys and blacks, he apparently wasn’t regarded as material to proceedings. In Okayama’s gorgeous Kōraku-en, the happy couple went one step further and had one set of photographs taken in Western dress, and a second set in kimono. At Arashiyama’s Bamboo Grove, the groom must have been fed up with battling the near gridlocked hanami-celebrating crowds. When we ran across them, he was dragging his new (or perhaps still prospective) wife’s bright yellow suitcase
grumpily behind him, largely oblivious of her and her armfuls of wedding dress.
…plastic representations of comestibles to tempt you to make a purchase in a sweet shop, to try a street-seller’s offerings or to enter a restaurant. In Japan this has become an art form, and I was amazed at how ubiquitous and lifelike these sampuru are. I found myself reaching for a sliced-open delicacy in a bowl above a pile of boxed-up Japanese sweets, as if to sample it, before realising that it was, in fact, a fake. When J was meandering around Tokyo, she tripped over the shops where this display food is sold. Occasionally, there’s a give-away, such as air-suspended chopsticks draped with noodles, but otherwise it’s astonishing, not to mention extremely useful for the language-limited tourist.
Only in Japan is the national wellbeing pegged to cherry blossom. Maybe it’s a sign of spring, the end of – in the majority of the country – the bitter temperatures of winter, but I know of no equivalent anywhere else. Hanami, the celebration of cherry blossom, is taken so seriously that a website predicts months in advance THE date for peak blooms
okonomiyaki in the making, Hiroshima
Hard to describe, a mixture between a pancake and an omelette, with the Hiroshima version featuring noodles - just delicious!
around the country. And, as we found out to our cost, being in Kyoto, regarded as THE home of cherry blossom, during THE peak blooming weekend, means crowds the likes of which made me think fondly of Oxford Street in the post-Christmas sales. No wonder we hadn’t been able to find accommodation there for less than a thousand dollars or more, and had had to settle for commuting each day from a far more reasonably-priced apartment in Osaka.
…are manga and anime national obsessions, to the extent of cafés, shops, neighbourhoods and festivals devoted to endless comic series and the spikily-drawn cartoon characters, and the kitsch (Hello Kitty in particular) ubiquitous and sought after.
…is every railway station a not-so-miniature universe, reliably heaving with people at any time of day (though we did notice a small reduction around 11 pm), whether they are actually travelling, or simply taking advantage of the mall-like properties of each station, with its incredible collection of shops and eateries. I was indebted to J who seemed able to discern one station from the next, and navigated our way around each one as we progressed in stages from Hiroshima to Tokyo and
commuted daily between Osaka and Kyoto. But even she was thrown by the instruction on our arrival in Osaka the first night to leave via the “East Exit”. We could see North, South, West and Central signposted, but East? (Turned out, in case you ever need to know, that you follow the signs for the South Exit and, after a while, signs to the East Exit appear.)
…are there drinks machines on every other street corner offering a range of canned and bottled drinks, both hot and cold options being served from the same machine. The first time I reached in and found that the can of what I was anticipating to be iced coffee was actually hot, I assumed the machine had malfunctioned. The next time it happened, I realised the heatedness must be intentional, but couldn’t figure out how to predict the temperature of my next drink. It turned into a bit of a lottery, at least until R pointed out the obvious. The background colour of the selection button or price or descriptor for a hot drink is red; that for a cold drink is – you guessed it – blue. “Doh!” as Homer Simpson might
have said in the circumstances. The pièce de drinks machine résistance was the coffee machine in a motorway service station north of Tokyo, where a live video feed relayed my coffee’s journey from bean to lidded cup.
Only in Japan do you get sweets and other foodstuffs specific to so many different events, festivals and seasons. And where the food or drink remains the same, the packaging will change: witness the bizarre sight of pink cans of Asahi beer, decorated to reflect the cherry blossom season.
It’s a wonder the country isn’t higher up the global obesity statistics. With a wide variety of street food everywhere you look, particularly at tourist sights and in markets, and dining out in department stores and railway stations de rigueur, it must require great restraint not to overindulge. We were saved by not always knowing (or trusting that we knew) what things were, or by gradually learning things that didn’t appeal quite so much. Potato kebabs took us aback: we were expecting hot savoury food, but found ourselves with cold sweet potato slathered in honey. Pickled cucumbers belatedly provided the savoury flavour we were craving. Fish cakes made of mashed conger eel,
whether in quasi sausage form on skewers or – presumably a little out of season – shaped like maple leaves, came in a variety of flavours, including bacon, spring onion, and ginger, and I sampled a few if only for the excuse to think fondly of my old cat, Toby, whose preferred form of fish during our childhood Highland summer holidays had been conger eel. Matcha – aka a strong, pure form of green tea – icecream was a flavour I wasn’t so keen on, and I only took a sample of R’s wasabi icecream, regular vanilla soft-ice with a dollop of fresh (and therefore even more potent) wasabi plonked on top. I confess I didn’t try the wasabi KitKats, but brought some back for a chilli-chocolate-loving friend.
Only in Japan (and, I admit, South Korea) is the chill of a damp spring day alleviated by a heated toilet seat. And the technology doesn’t stop there. Your modesty in your private moments is protected by the piped babble of running water. The number of options available in terms of post- or pre-toiletry ablutions is staggering, and often the actual flushing mechanism took some tracking down in amongst the panoply
of instructions. It’s perhaps as well that I’ve never seen the ablutionary instructions translated into English, otherwise I might be in there still, sampling the merits of each. However, it was strange that, in a country that is otherwise so clearly prepared for earthquakes, only one “facility” that I visited here bothered to say how to flush in the event of a power outage. With the exception of domestic toilets, almost every one I visited relied on electricity. But, while hi-tech in toileting, Japan seems unexpectedly old-fashioned in terms of showering, reliant on mixer taps with a switchover to a rubber hose attachment. Surely, there’s scope for more imagination here?
Only in Japan do you risk drowning in packaging, more than any other country I have visited. Sweets or biscuits, for example, may be wrapped individually or in small packages, but they are then boxed, the box beautifully wrapped up in paper or material, and then bagged in plastic at the checkout, with an extra handful of plastic bags placed on top if you happen to have bought several things at once. Trying to persuade shop assistants not to burden the planet with more plastic was an uphill struggle.
As I boarded the flight to Seoul, I picked up a copy of the Japan Times, with the alarming headline, “Micro-plastic found in digestive systems of fish in Tokyo Bay”. I read on. “Nearly 80 per cent of Japanese anchovy caught during a survey of Tokyo Bay had plastic waste inside their digestive systems…” Come on, Japan! You’ve had to conquer power shortages in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. You are masters of invention of things I didn’t realise needed inventing. Combatting this level of waste is well within your powers. Isn’t it?
Further, this is a country that almost universally relies on cash. Coming straight from Australia where “PayPass” is suddenly everywhere and having become accustomed to the UK’s erroneously-named “contactless” system, I found the switch back to the folding stuff a little curious. Trying to anticipate how much cash to withdraw, how much we might use in a week, taking into what was already paid for versus what was not, felt like a step back in time. And the domination of cash is not limited to day-to-day expenditure. R told me they’d had to pay the deposit on their new flat in Tokyo in cash, and,
from what he’d heard to date, it was likely that the balance would need to be paid in the same manner on completion. J was having a similar cash/card/lack of online banking shock on her recent move from London to Hong Kong. It seems contrary given the invasion of (arguably less useful) technology into so many other facets of life.
Bar these few things, you could say that, if it’s been invented or even contemplated anywhere, it will already be in widespread use in Japan. Yet looking back on it now, for all the frustration I felt at what I personally perceived to be wastage and/or uselessness and/or questionable tastefulness, I find myself thinking more and more indulgently of the quirks and eccentricities of the Land of the Rising Sun.
I’ll miss the street corner drinks machines, I admit, and, given that my next destination has apparently extended winter into mid-April, I’ll definitely pine for the heated toilet seats.
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