A New Outlook

Dearest readers,

Well, in a few short weeks I will be leaving Japan. Altogether I have spent almost three years of my life on these strange islands, and although they will always feel like my home away from home, they will always be away from home.

Life as a foreigner in Japan can be both amazing and awful. I have been treated as an honoured guest, an instant friend and a “dream come true”, as one woman put it. I have also been treated like an idiot, being lied to over and over again by companies who are more interested in the colour of my skin, than my ability to teach English. I have had people blatantly refuse to speak to me in Japanese because “foreigners can’t speak Japanese”. I have been refused service at bars and restaurants, been refused entrance to hot springs and beaches, and been told that my spoken English is poor because I don’t speak “standard English” (I am Australian for those who didn’t know).

Don’t get me wrong, the majority of people I have met and experiences I have had here have been fantastic. The little daily differences tire me out though and that is a part of the reason I have chosen to leave these beautiful islands.

Japan is a very difficult place to explain to people from other countries, even to those who are living in Japan now. I was lucky enough to spend a year here as a junior high school student, and learnt many cultural things then that most people do not seem to pick up after even ten years of living here as an adult. Many of my Japanese friends do not refer to me as a “foreigner”, but as a “returnee”, someone who has left Japan and come back with a mixed outlook on the culture. Although I don’t see myself this way, I am honoured to be thought of as such by people living in such a monocultural society.

The point of this post isn’t to rant about me, but to say thank you to Japan for all that it has offered me, and for all the ways it has helped me grow. I have had amazing experiences here, and although I have no intention on living here again in the future, I will always come back when I have the chance, just to see what new weirdness is unfolding here.

From here I go to Vietnam, a new place for me, with new adventures and experiences. I have no intention of blogging my trip there, as I feel that I need a break from technology for a while, but who knows what will happen?

As far as the chronicles of my Japanese adventures are concerned, I may continue to update in the future, for my benefit as much as for my readers’, and add a few cultural posts here and there as the mood takes me.

For now though, this is my last post for a little while. Thank you to everyone who has given me feedback and support (I’ve never written a blog before), and here is hoping that once I hit Australia the mood to write takes me again. I have enjoyed this project a lot, but now is not the time for me to continue. The quality of my writing has fallen lately and I think that it shows that what was a joy for me is starting to feel like a chore. For anyone travelling to or living in Japan though, feel free to comment with any questions you have, and I will do my best to answer when I am able.

I hope Japan can hold as much wonder for you as it has done for me.

Until then,
Let yourself get lost for a while.

image

Advertisements

A letter home: Part 9

Beloved ones,
This post follows on from my last one regarding a friend’s visit to see us in the Kanto region of Japan.

Day Nine
The morning of day nine involved a long sleep in to recover from our long journey the past two days. Once we finally had the energy to get moving again, we headed up to Western Tokyo city for the day.

The hubs here are the Shibuya and Shinjuku areas, and we decided to start the day by going to the top of the Tokyo Municipal Government Building to see the amazing view. The city stretches to the horizon in every direction, and the view is quite overwhelming.

image

Our next stop was in the Harajuku area, to see one of the most important shrines in Japan, Meiji Jingu. It is hard to imagine that this serene shrine in the heart of a beautiful forest is actually situated right in the centre of the world’s biggest city. After paying our respects at the shrine, we headed out through the forest to Harajuku proper.

image

Harajuku is known throughout the world as an alternative fashion district, but in reality, it is much more geared towards tourists and high school students than to Japanese adults.

Although we had a coffee and a Harajuku crepe here, we didn’t spend more than an hour or so wandering the streets. We did see some cool stores and some interesting people about, but ultimately it wasn’t our style. Harajuku was my favourite place to go as a Japanese high school student, and will always hold a place in my heart, but to be honest, I can’t help feel a little old when I visit there now.

image

After Harajuku we caught a bus into Shibuya. This is more of a fashionable neighbourhood for young adults. It is also where the famous “Tokyo crossing” shown in a lot of films is situated.

image

After wandering around for a while, we decided on an all you can eat Japanese steamboat (shabu-shabu) for dinner. It was the perfect end to a day full of crowds and lights and noise. We were all very tired and pretty happy to get back on the train to Yokohama at the end of the night.

Day Ten
We left early this morning to head out of the city once again.  This time to Mt Takao, west of Tokyo city. The weather was insanely hot and humid, and yet we hiked the mountain’s longest trail in about 3 or 4 hours.

image

Along the way we passed beautiful shrines and temples that monks use to help bring them closer to enlightenment.

image

The walk was definitely one of the more beautiful that we have been on in Japan. The highlight for me was walking up a creek via stepping stones that had been placed along the middle.

image

By the time we had made it to the top we were exhausted, but lucky for us there was a small festival happening where we could pay a small fee to have an all we could eat and drink buffet, looking out over the amazing view of Tokyo.

After our dinner, we (slightly inebriated) decided to head back into the city for one last look around Shinjuku. We went to Golden Gai, a rare older part of town that was not destroyed in the war. It was very different to the other parts of town, and well worth a visit, even just to see the old Japanese style streets.

image

Day Eleven
Our last full day together was spent relaxing at home and recovering from the festivities from the night before.

For dinner though, we had arranged an exciting farewell on a Yakatabune, a boat on Tokyo harbour.

image

A boat on the dock, identical to ours

This is something I had wanted to do since I was about fifteen. The boats are traditional Japanese style with tatami flooring, and for two or three hours you can go out on the boat to eat and drink to your heart’s content.

image

The food was amazing. Local sashimi and tempura, with all the beer and sake we could drink. It was wonderful being able to stand up on the roof of the boat and see the views of the city too.

image

This is only our appetisers!

After our three hour boat ride, we went to the park to let off some farewell fireworks.

We then made the mistake of having just “one last karaoke adventure”. By the time we got home, we had been drinking for almost twelve hours straight and fell asleep straight away.

Needless to say, the next day, none of us were feeling our best (I am not sure that I have ever had a hangover like that before), and our friend’s flight home was not the best flight she had ever had.

We all had an amazing time together though, and being able to show her around the region was one of the more memorable and enjoyable times I have had in Japan.

It was a perfect way to spend the hottest part of Summer, and also our last few weeks in the Kanto region. Once our friend had left, it was time for us to head South.

Until next time,
Let yourself get lost for a while.

A letter home: Part 8

Beloved Ones,
This post continues on from my last update. We had been hosting our friend for almost a week now.

Day Six
One of our guest’s requests for her trip was a visit to Tokyo Disneyland. Something that not many foreigners seem to have heard of though is Tokyo DisneySea. This theme park is the same size as Disneyland but with a more nautical theme. As a lover of all things oceanic, our friend decided that DisneySea would be the place to go.

image

Some of the themes that the park covers are The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I really enjoy the aesthetic of DisneySea. You can really get caught up in the feel of the place enough to believe that you are in Venice, a Louisiana bayou or an Arabian marketplace. I didn’t feel that Disneyland did quite as well with this.

image

After looking around for the day and visiting as many rides and attractions as we could, we found ourselves in the Teddy Roosevelt Lounge on the S.S. Colombia Ocean liner. One of the most popular things at DisneySea is the availability of alcohol, and we certainly took advantage of that. A few long island ice teas later we sauntered through the warm night to our last stop for the evening at the Journey to the Centre of the Earth ride. We had time to ride the giant volcano roller coaster twice (after being gifted some free passes to the front of the line by a friendly stranger) before we headed home on the train.

Day Seven
Day Eleven saw us head to Atami in Shizuoka prefecture. Atami is known for its beaches and hot springs. We arrived at our AirBNB lodgings around lunchtime, and spent the afternoon being shown around a Japanese tea house and partaking in a tea ceremony. This was a modern school of tea ceremony and different to anything that we had experienced before. After returning back to our traditional Japanese room for a short nap, we made our way down to the beach for the local fireworks festival. Most councils run one of these every Summer and it was wonderful watching the fireworks over the ocean. As a typhoon was making its way in over the sea, we decided to head back to our accommodation early for a bath in a natural hot spring. The spring water was pumped into a beautiful (and huge) Japanese cedarwood bathtub, which the three of us spent a good hour in before heading up to bed for a very deep sleep. There is nothing better than a hot spring followed by a futon in a tatami room.

image

Day Eight
The typhoon had blown over by morning and we got up in time for a (very western style) meditation lesson. We then walked with out backpacks down to the Kinomiya shrine. The shrine holds a 2000 year old camphor tree which apparently holds a spirit who offers long life to worshippers. After receiving our blessings there, we got on a bus over the mountains to Hakone.

image

Hakone is famous as a ski resort during the Wintertime and being close to mount Fuji, it offers some of the most beautiful and famous views in Japan. We arrived at Lake Ashi around lunch time and managed a quick lunch before getting on a huge sail boat made to look like a pirate ship. The boat carried us over the lake for about an hour.

image

As we got close to the other side we realised that although the typhoon had passed, it was still very cloudy and windy in the mountains and we had no view of mount Fuji at all. It was still beautiful but a little disappointing. What followed proved to be one of the most genuinely frightening experiences I had had in years…

The chair lift over the mountains takes about thirty minutes and is over 1.4 kilometres long. Being close to mount Fuji and soaring 280 metres above the forest below, it is known to have some of the most breathtaking views in the Kantō region. On this day however, the cloud cover meant that we could only see a few metres in front or behind us at any time, and the wind meant that the cable car we were in rocked and creaked in terrifying way. The old Japanese people sharing the carriage with us were nearly in tears and to be honest so was I.

image

This image from Wikipedia shows what the ride should look like. Here is the photo from our visit…

image

The idea of falling down didn’t leave my mind for a second as the carriage rocked and swayed in the winds on our way over the mountains. Not being able to see what was below us made the journey that much more terrifying. I don’t have any problems with heights usually, but this ride into the unknown made me feeling like it would be my last day on earth. Safely on the other side (after having to switch to another cable car at a station mid way along the ride), we decided we had had more than enough adventure for one day, got a curry, and got the train home.

One amazing place that we passed on the train was the “Ekinaka-benten” shrine, dedicated to Benten-sama, the Kami (deity) of inspiration and music. The place was hidden in the forest, just off the train platform, and completely empty of people but had an amazing atmosphere to it, and when we saw it from the train window, we immediately ran and got off to go and check it out.

image

We spent a good half hour there and left feeling very at peace, and excited about the next part of our holiday together. I like to think our visit to the shrine of music is what inspired our karaoke party that evening.

With only a few days left with our friend in Japan, the next day, we were heading up into Tokyo city. More on that next time.

Until then,
Let yourself get lost for a while.

Sōmen recipe

Summer in Japan is sickeningly hot, but sometimes, all you want is noodles! How do we combat the heat whilst still indulging in delicious Japanese noodles? By eating sōmen!

Sōmen are very thin wheat noodles, served cold with a dipping sauce and some refreshing toppings. It is a very simple dish but is very delicious and perfect for a hot humid day. You can essentially add any toppings that you like to your noodles, but today I am going to keep them simple in this recipe.

image

Ingredients
Sōmen noodles (you can buy these in any Asian grocery store and many health food stores)
500mL water
3/5 cup soy sauce
3 tablespoons of sugar
2 tablespoons of sake (Japanese rice wine)
Dried bonito flakes (if available)
Sliced spring onions

Recipe
1) Add the water to a small saucepan and bring to the boil.

2) Add soy sauce, sugar and sake and boil for one to two minutes.

3) Put a pinch each of bonito flakes and spring onions into the bottom of four small bowls and pour the dipping sauce over them.

4) Boil noodles for two minutes (or follow packet instructions).

5) Drain noodles and run under cold water until the noodles are cool.

6) Serve noodles on personal plates with dipping sauce in separate bowls. Each person should have their own bowl of sauce.

I often serve these noodles with a topping of thinly sliced cucumber, as you can see in the photo above, but I also enjoy them with tomato, fried egg and bean sprouts. Mix the noodles and toppings together and dip them in the sauce before eating.

If you can’t get sōmen noodles, then rice noodles would work for this recipe too. They would not be quite the same, but should be tasty none the less.

Enjoy!

Japanese Culture: Omotenashi

Writing anything about a foreign culture is always going to be a difficult mission. As much as we may befriend the people, live the lifestyle and immerse ourselves as fully as we can in the ways of another people, we will always carry mindsets, biases and viewpoints from our own culture. Another factor too (especially in a country such as Japan), is that as visitors from abroad, we are often exposed to what the native population want us to see, rather than the actual reality.

I feel very lucky to have had the chance to spend a year in Japan as an exchange student after completing the tenth grade in Australia. Teenagers are much less likely than adults to keep to the accepted cultural and social boundaries, and so at that time I was able to be exposed to a very genuine, open side of Japanese culture. Only now after having spent another year in Japan as an adult do I realise how many doors have been closed to me, just because I am now spending my time with adults rather than teenagers. This also means though, that compared to some other foreigners living in Japan, I have an interesting insight into the culture, and I hope to share this with you in my post today. Saying this though, what I am writing is based only on my understanding and experience of Japanese culture, and some people might disagree with some or even all of my points. As I said above though, as a foreigner, it will be always difficult to write about a foreign culture. Wish me luck.

Omotenashi is usually translated into English as “hospitality“, but many Japanese people say that this is not a correct description of the omotenashi concept. A lot of foreigners here complain that the Japanese often say that their versions of perfectly mundane concepts such as the seasons, food, and hospitality are somehow “special” and that western people just don’t understand. In this case, I would have to agree with the Japanese. Omotenashi is so steeped in Japanese thinking that it can sometimes seem almost the opposite of what we would see as hospitable in the west.

In  the daily life of the average Japanese person, omotenashi is usually only considered during the guest/host relationship. When having a guest (whether family, friend or colleague) come from another area to visit, the host will generally plan the entire trip for the guest. Where they are going, what they will eat, where they will stay, even down to as specific a detail as to what trains they will catch are planned in advance by the host. This all stems from the idea that the guest should not have to be put in a position where they feel that they need to ask for anything. For a guest to have to ask to go to a certain place, or even for a cup of tea would be embarrassing to the host who is expected to have everything organised and arranged. “Wanting for nothing” is an expression that Japanese colleagues of mine have used when talking about omotenashi; “The guest is on holiday, they shouldn’t need to think about things like what they want to eat, or where they have to sleep. The host should take care of it all”. The other important factor when performing omotenashi is that all this should be done without the expectation of receiving anything in return. The guest’s presence is gift enough.

This is especially obvious in the Japanese traditional inn, or ryokan, where the food is prepared for the guest, the futon mattress is laid out, the bath is filled and the guest is awoken, all at times decided by the host.

The concept is also closely related to the Japanese social hierarchy. For a person to take on the role of a host, they must humble themselves before their guest. This means putting the guest above them on the social hierarchy. The guest will be asked to start eating before the other people at the table. They will be offered the first bath in the evening (which will be run for them by the host), they will be told earlier than the other people present that they are welcome to go to bed if they are tired, and in more formal situations, an entire different register of the language is used when speaking to the guest. Keigo is a polite form of Japanese used specifically to express that the person being spoken to is being held in high regard, and the person who is speaking is attempting to humble themselves. We often see this reflected in stereotypes of Japanese people in movies: “Honourable Mister Suzuki, I humbly ask that you favour me by partaking in this humble cup of honourable tea”. Although this stereotype is obviously used for comedic purposes (and it sounds that little bit racist), it actually is a word for word translation of the keigo language used to offer someone tea.

The omotenashi mindset has spread into other parts of modern Japanese culture too. For example, most restaurants will have a “service” dish that comes with a meal as a gift to the customer. This can be from as simple as some pickles or a bowl of miso soup, to something as extravagant as a free dessert or glass of wine with your meal. Other examples are the friendly calls of “irasshaimase!” to welcome customers to a store, and the consistent free tastings of foods, drinks and snacks available at Japanese food stores.

As much as this treatment may sound lovely to many foreign people who choose to visit Japan, often the Japanese way of treating guests does not fit with western expectations. Omotenashi is based entirely on the idea that the host can accurately predict what the guest would like before they ask for it. As Japanese people are not often very exposed to any foreign cultures (except through film), it is difficult for them to make the correct assumptions about what their guests would enjoy, and they end up making decisions that some visitors see as quite racist. An African American friend of mine, for example, was served fried chicken for dinner when staying at a ryokan, because the owner thought that my friend would me more comfortable with that kind of food. Although his actions came from a kind place, these assumptions obviously are able to be taken the wrong way by visitors who do not understand the culture.

Another reason foreign guests often struggle with the ryokan style is because the food menu, dinner time, bath time, etc. is chosen by the host. As much as the Japanese may enjoy a break from planning and thinking about details whilst they are on vacation, westerners often prefer to feel more freedom when they have time off. Predecided dinner, bath and bed times can often hamper this feeling.

My personal feelings about omotenashi are mixed. I enjoy my free soup and the amazing attention to detail that hotels and restaurants pay when greeting customers or guests (incidentally, customer and guest are the same word in Japanese). What I don’t enjoy is waiting an hour for my friend to finish washing the dishes after dinner at his house, because as a guest, I am not able to help with the cleaning, or not being able to tell my student’s parents when the kids are acting up in class because the parents are our customers and therefore I have to keep them happy, even if it means straight out lying to them. It is a hard line to walk, but I am sure most people living in other countries struggle with certain aspects of the host culture.

I hope I have managed to shed a little light on this topic today. It was honestly very difficult to write, not because of a lack of understanding on the topic, but because trying to explain such a fundamental Japanese concept using the English language had my head spinning.

Anyway, I hope it was understandable, and if you have any questions, post them below and I will happily do my best to answer them for you.

A letter home: part 7

Beloved Ones,
After months of working in Yokohama, and having very little success making any real friends, we were very happy to have the chance to host our friend from Australia for two weeks. As the Kantō area is vast and there are so many things to experience there, we decided to embrace the Japanese concept of omotenashi, and create an experience where she should “want for nothing”.
Our friend loved the idea, and so when she arrived at the end of July, we had her welcome pack ready, including a schedule written up with a list of amazing places and foods that would fill our next two weeks. This post will be a basic outline of the adventures we had together. It was strange to feel like tourists in our own city, but it really reminded us how much beauty and culture Japan had to offer us. This was very uplifting after being homesick and overworked for a few months. I would recommend any of these places to any foreigners living in the Kantō region, or even any tourists who are coming to Japan for a vacation.

Day One
We started in Northern Tokyo, in the Asakusa area. Asakusa is a thriving suburb on the banks of the Sumida river. The major attraction here is the beautiful Sensōji temple complex. As our friend arrived late, we had a chance to wander through the temple complex at night. The vastness of the temple precinct was so much more obvious at night when there were no people around. After a (rather expensive) sushi dinner, we headed back to our ryokan hotel. We had a traditional room with tatami mats and futon to sleep on. I would recommend this kind of accommodation to anyone visiting Japan, even if you can only stay for one night.

image

Day Two
We started the day back at Sensōji temple. We thought it would be best to start our journey together by asking Jizō-san for his protection and blessings. As the spiritual guide for travellers, he has played a big role in our journey here in Japan, and our friend was excited to learn how to honour him in the traditional way. After exploring the complex for a few hours and eating a lot of green tea and grape flavoured shaved ices to help escape the awful heat, we made our way down to the river to get a futuristic river ferry down to Odaiba Island.

image

The island itself is covered with many amazing attractions, from Venus Fort, a mall made to look like the streets of ancient Venice, to an enormous Ferris wheel (which I made the mistake of suggesting we go on) and the Miraikan, or ‘National Museum for Emerging Science and Innovation’. We spent the afternoon and evening here before heading back to our ryokan by monorail and subway.

image

Venus Fort Mall on Odaiba

Day Three
For our third and final day staying in Tokyo, we spend the morning looking at souvenir shops, and went up Japan’s highest tower the Sky Tree. This tower is 634 metres tall and looks out over the vast expanse of Tokyo. For people from a relatively small city like Sydney, it is always amazing to see such an intensely built up area from above. It just goes on forever. Unfortunately, the Summer in Japan is so humid that the air becomes hazy, and although we had a great view, we couldn’t see more than twenty kilometres or so.

image

In the afternoon we went to Ueno park and had a wander around the amazing lotus flower covered lake, and to the Benten shrine. The humidity soon started getting to us though (it was 28 degrees and over 90 percent humidy), so we decided it was time for the one hour trip home to Yokohama.

We spent the evening eating homemade takoyaki (balls of savory fried pancake batter filled with octopus) and drinking our homemade umeshū which we had made in the rainy season. As it was too hot to sleep, we then went down to the park to let off some fireworks; a perfectly legal pastime in the Japanese Summer. That is unless you do it until two in the morning as we did…

The policeman was very nice and said he was glad we were having a good night, but perhaps it would be better for us to let them off earlier in the night next time.

image

Homemade takoyaki!

Day Four
After a well needed sleep in (we may have finished off the two litres of umeshū), we got on the train back into Central Tokyo. We looked around the Yūrakucho area where the Japanese salarymen go to eat after a long day at work (often before returning to work again in the evening). This area is known for its many bars and eateries underneath the train tracks. We found a delicious little place tucked away in a very shady looking tunnel.

image

Exploring the underground maze of tunnels together.

After lunch we walked a few blocks to the central Tokyo area where the buildings tower over the roads and give pedestrians the feeling that they are walking through an immense canyon of glass and metal. It is such a futuristic looking place, and it really filled us with awe. We felt like we were on the set of a film, rather than in the middle of a real city.

Our evening was very special. We arrived at our traditional Obon dance class at around five in the afternoon. After being dressed in our traditional Japanese summer kimonos, or yukata, we spent about an hour learning three traditional Japanese dances. The dances were simple and fun to do.

Bon dancing is a Summer past time that originated as a part of a festival for Ancestor veneration. Now, for most people, it is just a fun way to pass a hot summer night. Our dance was hosted at Honganji temple in Tsukiji. A huge central platform was set up to host the experienced dancers, mostly older women from the area, whom the guests would watch and mimic during the dance. This made it very easy to pick up the steps to new dances. Around the platform were the taikō drummers; and then the guests, including us, all danced in a circle around them.

image

We danced through the night’s heat for hour and hours, until we could barely walk anymore. Then we chose to walk anyway, to a magical Alice in Wonderland café in the Ginza district. We made it home on the last train and I thought I would never walk again.

Day Five
After a well deserved sleep in, we lounged around the house until the late afternoon, and then made our way down to Yokohama bay to see the view from the Landmark Tower. It was a shock to see mount Fuji from the tower (a very rare sight in the middle of summer), and we all felt very lucky to have had the chance. (See a photo in my previous post)

image

We then spent the evening at a small theme park at Yokohama marina called ‘Cosmo World‘. Luckily, I wasn’t forced onto another Ferris wheel. Our day at Odaiba had really cemented in my phobia surrounding the awful things.

image

View of Cosmo World from Landmark Tower

After a very relaxed evening we had a leisurely walk up to Yokohama Chinatown for an all you can eat Cantonese dinner before heading home to catch up on some sleep.

I’ll continue with day six in my next post.
Until then,
Let yourself get lost for a while.

Japanese Recipe: Garlic and Sake chicken

Trying to budget to travel around a country as expensive as Japan can be difficult, especially with some of the most delicious food in the world screaming “eat me!” from within every store you walk past on your way home from a 13 hour day at work. Oftentimes, just going out for a walk in the city for an afternoon can make the wallet almost 100 dollars lighter than it was when you left home. Almost anyone who has been to Japan in the last 20 years can attest to this.
Looking into it, we realised that the vast majority of our money was going into the very high public transport costs, and the very delicious foods available around town.
Keeping food costs low, cooking time fast, and not just reverting to eating western food at home was a struggle for us until we discovered this recipe. I have never been too tired to cook this after work, and never been disappointed with how tasty it is.
Served with rice, miso soup and maybe a vegetable dish, this Japanese Garlic Chicken recipe became a staple for us when we were living in Yokohama.

image

Ingredients
500g of chicken thigh (breast will not work for this recipe)
2 Tbsp soy sauce (preferably Japanese)
2 Tbsp mirin* (Japanese sweet cooking wine)
2 Tbsp ground garlic (use a Japanese grater or from a tube)
100 mL Japanese sake (rice wine for drinking not cooking wine)

image

* Make sure you get real mirin, not “mirin seasoning” which is a sugary (and poor) substitute for the real thing

Recipe
1) Cut chicken thigh into one inch pieces.

2) Mix all other ingredients together in a cup.

3) On a high heat, fry the chicken with a little oil or butter, skin side down until the skin has browned.

4) Pour the sauce over the chicken, turn heat down to medium, and continue to cook until the sauce is almost completely absorbed by the meat.

image

5) Serve with rice and miso soup, or as a delicious snack on its own.

Very simple, and very delicious. Please comment below if you make this dish, and tell me how it went. I might just make some myself tonight!