Day trip to Shirakawa-go

This weekend, we did a day-trip to Shirakawa-go, a quaint and historic little town in the Japanese mountains. Well, it was a day trip from Kanazawa, Japan, where I had been attending a meeting. It’s probably a 2-day trip from Tokyo, unless you want to have some really early and really late Shinkansen reservations.

Thatch roof house in Shirakawa-go

Shirakawa-go is a small village designated as UNESCO world heritage site. The houses are historic wood structures with steeply pitched thatch roofs. It’s typically a picturesque winter scene in the December to March months. We visited on a bright, sunny day when much of the snow was beginning to melt.

Our trip began with purchase of highway bus tickets in Kanazawa. With our limited (but growing) Japanese language skill, we were able to ask for tickets on Saturday morning around 9:30. The nice lady at the window spoke some English, and quickly let us know that the 9:41 bus was full, but the 9:10 was available. We selected a 15:55 return bus, and our trip was set. Cost for two people for a round trip was 6500 JPY = about $65 US. It is possible to arrange guided bus tours, which provide a guide and structured visit. Costs are about 5900 JPY per person. We are pretty comfortable on our own, and like the flexibility of managing our own time.

Highway bus ticket to Shirakawa-go

The bus trip to Shirakawa-go takes a little over an hour from kanazawa. Travel by highway bus in Japan is great. Price is reasonable, the staff and bus drivers are friendly, the coaches are spotless and they are almost always on schedule. For places where there may not be train service the highway bus is a great option.

Highway bus at the Shirakawa-go bus station

As we approached Shirakawa-go, it was obvious we were climbing rapidly into the mountains. There are many long tunnels, between which we could see the landscape was changing to tall mountains covered with snow. It has been a warmer year than usual in this part of Japan, but there was still snow to be seen.

Arriving at the Shirakawa-go bus station, it is easy to find an English-language map of village. The village is easily walkable. The day of our visit, the streets were clear of snow. Perhaps it may be a more challenging walk around the village with a foot of snow on the ground.

We had a leisurely walk through the village, and enjoyed looking at the thatch-roof houses still covered with snow. There are also temples and shrines in the village that are open for viewing. If you are into “touristy” nick-knacks and souvenirs, the shops are plentiful. Some of the offerings are beautiful – and expensive – local crafts.  

There are also restaurants and coffee shops. We found a little coffee shop with traditional tatami mat seating. A wonderfully relaxing place to enjoy a delicious cup of coffee.

We were fortunate to be able to see the village from a scenic overlook high above the village. It isn’t accessible when there is heavy snow. The village offers a free shuttle to the top. We opted for the short, but steep, walk up.

Our visit was a good one. It’s an interesting village, and provides a glimpse into this region of Japan long ago. Shirakawa-go is well worth taking a day trip from Kanazawa, or a 2-day trip from Tokyo.

Holiday Traditions in Japan

In the US — and also in most western countries — we have just finished with the Christmas holiday… arguably the most important “family” holiday we have in the US, with so many traditions attached: the decorating, trees, lights, music, food (lots and lots of food!), sending Christmas cards, and giving Christmas presents. It is the holiday that everyone anticipates all year long.

Oshogatsu

But here in Japan — though they do have an appreciation for the fun aspects of Christmas — Christmas is more along the lines of Halloween or the Easter Bunny. The main “family” holiday here is New Year’s (Oshogatsu), which is celebrated from New Year’s Eve, and through the official national holiday days January 1st through the 3rd. Families travel to gather together for the holiday, and they have many important traditions that they observe during this special time of year:

Decorating. Since Christmas Day (which was just another work day here — no national holiday), New Year’s decorations have been going up everywhere, outside homes and businesses. Traditional decorations — kadomatsu — include bamboo, pine boughs, and ume (plum tree) sprigs, to represent prosperity, longevity, and steadfastness. They function to honor and receive the Toshigami deity, who brings blessings and prosperity for the new year. 2019 is the Year of the Boar according to the Chinese zodiac, so many of the signs and decorations also include images of a pig or boar.

Traditional foods. Soba (a soup broth with buckwheat noodles and toppings) is often eaten at New Year’s, as well as Osechi-ryori (a Bento style meal including many pickled, dried and preserved foods that require no cooking or preparation), and ozouni soup with mochi rice cake. Sashimi and sushi have also become popular for holiday meals, and soothing warm nabe pot stews are always available during the cold winter weather as well.

Soba from our favorite noodle shop
Bento box

Sending New Year’s postcards.  Instead of Christmas cards, Japanese tradition is to send a postcard to arrive on New Year’s Day. These are prepared and taken to the post office early, but Japan Post holds them and delivers them all on New Year’s Day.

New Year’s Ringing of the Temple Bells.  Shortly before midnight on New year’s Eve many of the Buddhist temples all over Japan will begin ringing the temple bells 108 times. Ringing 108 times for each of the 108 worldly temptations. Many will try to finish 107 chimes before midnight, and finish the 108th chime just after the New Year arrives. Many people visit the temples on New Year’s Eve for a last visit for the old year, and may participate in the ringing of the bell.

A Visit to the Temple for the New Year.  It is also traditional to visit the Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines again during the first three days of the January, offering prayers for the New Year. Lines are long at the major temples of Sensoji and Zojoji, and at Meiji Shrine, in Tokyo, as people wait for their turn to pray and give a small offering. It is also a chance to buy new charms and amulets (Omamori) at the temple or shrine to provide luck and protection in the coming year.

These are only some of the traditions that we have observed here in our three years in Japan. I am sure there are many more things that are traditional to certain families, or to certain regions of Japan. We have learned so much about this fascinating culture in our time here, and continue to observe and learn new things every day.

Wishing you all a Wonderful and Blessed New Year in whichever country and culture you call home.

A short trip to Hachijojima

This year, my wife and I traveled to the US early in December for our youngest daughter’s wedding. We couldn’t stay in the US for the whole month, so we had an early holiday celebration with the family, and returned to Japan.

Since this would be the first time ever away from our children at Christmas, we wanted to do something special and completely different. We looked at several options for an “away from home” Christmas, and finally opted for a short trip to Hachijojima, an island about 300 kilometers south of Tokyo.

Hachijojima

There are two ways to get to Hachijo. One is a ferry that leaves Tokyo in the late evening and arrives at the island the next morning. The other is by air. ANA has three flights a day – a very short trip by air, about 50 minutes. The ferry sounded like fun, but we decided on the simplicity of a flight.

Our flight left on 23 December from Haneda airport. After being used to flying internationally, a domestic flight is refreshing. No immigration, no need for a passport. ANA has a simple and effective automated drop off point for baggage. A short stroll through security and we were headed to the gate.

Our flight was, as promised short and easy. We arrived at the small Hachijo airport 50 minutes after takeoff. Bags arrived quickly, and we were ready to go.

Our first look at Mt. Nishi fom the plane

A Japanese friend had made car rental arrangements for us. We were to call the rental company, and they would pick us up at the airport. As we didn’t know how much English the rental company person would speak, we took the easy way out and asked a bilingual airport information person to call for us. A few minutes later, a friendly lady arrived to pick us up for the 2-minute ride to the car rental place.

Turns out the car rental guy spoke passibly good English. He took a copy of my US driver’s license and my International Driving permit (I don’t have a Japanese license), and asked if I needed the optional insurance, which I accepted. I was a bit surprised that they didn’t accept credit cards. Fortunately I had enough cash to cover the charge. No paperwork, no receipts – but very quickly, we had a small Suzuki car at tour disposal.

Our ride – not luxurious, but compact and easy to maneuver on narrow roads

Driving on the island is pretty easy. Of course, as every place else in Japan, you drive on the left side of the road, and the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. Takes a little time to get used to, but with little traffic, it wasn’t a challenge. Some of the roads are very narrow – which is quite unsettling when meeting an oncoming car. However, the car is really necessary for getting around the island.

We stayed at the Lido Park Hotel, a nice and comfortable place about 10 minutes’ drive from the airport. Many of the hotel staff only speak Japanese, but are very friendly. One man at the desk, and a young girl on the restaurant staff spoke good English. Even with our limited Japanese language skills, we had no problems with communication. We enjoyed the hotel, and our room had a nice ocean view.

Hachijojima has a variety of activities available. December is pretty much the off season – the island is probably much more active in the spring and summer months. Still, it is subtropical and the temperature was about 10 to 15 degrees warmer than Tokyo. We spent much of our first full day driving around the island and getting a feel for where things were located. There are some beautiful views of the ocean and adjacent island that can be seen from the comfort of your car.

Christmas day was sunny, cool and beautiful. We started the day with a hike up Mt. Nishi – also known as Hachijo-Fuji. We drove to a trail head, and took a rock trail to the top. It’s a fairly steep hike up to the rim of the volcano. At 854 meters, it is much smaller than Mt. Fuji. There is a trail around the rim, which we found to be more challenging than expected. The trail is narrow, rocky, and there are places with steep drops and climbs. But it is beautiful. This mountain is short enough that there is vegetation everywhere, on the outside of the mountain and into the crater. Views of the ocean and surrounding area are awesome. The hike around the rim took about an hour, and it was well worth the effort.

There are many other things to do on the island. We hiked to two waterfalls, and took the road around the island to see as many sights as we could in our short time available. There are many onsens – Japanese hot baths – available. We didn’t go on this trip, but they are a popular attraction.

Our short trip ended the day after Christmas. During our brief time on the island, we learned some things that will help us on our next visit. One, most places don’t take credit cards, so have cash (and, ATMs are available, so cash isn’t really a problem). Two, finding restaurants can be a challenge, particularly on a holiday in the off season. And three, most things close at around 5 p.m., at least in the off season, so don’t expect a lot of evening activities.

We thoroughly enjoyed our short time on Hachijojima, and look forward to another visit to this scenic and subtropical part of Japan.

Hachijojima

Setagaya trip to market

There are many activities in Tokyo that are seasonal or held periodically. Today, we visited the Setagaya street fair/market. It’s an event we saw on the Best Living Japan website, a good source for information about activities in Tokyo.

Setagaya is an area of Tokyo we have seldom visited. Fortunately, Google Maps provides an easy (and usually accurate) set of directions. Today, we took the JR Yamanote line from Tamachi Station to Shibuya Station. Then a change of trains to the Tokyu Den-entoshi Line, to Sangenjaya Station. From there, change trains to the Setagaya Line, a small tram rail line (one of the few tram lines remaining in Tokyo) going to Setagaya Station. Sounds more complicated than it really is. The street fair started just outside Setagaya Station. 

Start of the street fair, just outside Setagaya Station

The street fair is held twice a year. There are some 700 booths, selling just about everything from clothing, to dishware, to street food. It’s crowded…be ready to navigate through lots of people. But it’s an interesting experience, in a part of Tokyo that is a bit more remote from the big city. 

We spent about two hours wandering through the streets. If you’re really into shopping – or eating – you could easily spend much more time there. 

We chose to walk back from Setagaya to Shibuya. It’s about a six kilometer walk through residential Tokyo. We found a nice urban path that runs through the neighborhoods – paved, away from the busy streets. A quiet, scenic walkway that runs almost all the way to Shibuya. 

So, today we found an area of Tokyo that, after nearly 3 years of living in Tokyo, we haven’t seen before. It’s part of the fun of living in this safe and walkable city. 

A Trip to the Supermarket…

Not a lot of groceries, but about as much as I like to carry home from the supermarket.

Here in Japan, I have to grocery shop almost daily. Our refrigerator and pantry space is small, and I have a kilometer walk to and from the store. I have talked about the challenges of grocery shopping and about Japanese products before, but here are a few things I bought today. Nothing too out of the ordinary, but still some interesting differences from products we buy in the US.

This is Japanese cooking sake — ryorishu. This brand is sold in a carton,and is found in the aisle with soy sauce, vinegars, mirin, etc. The difference between this and regular drinking sake, is that law requires the addition of 2-3% salt to make it unpalatable for drinking. You can use regular sake for cooking, but this is generally cheaper at about 400 yen for 900 ml. Many Japanese dishes are cooked in a savory mixture of soy sauce, mirin, and sake. Sake helps to tenderize meats, and helps to cut odors of fish dishes. 

Mirin — also a type of cooking sake. The difference between mirin and the above ryorishu cooking sake, is that mirin has a lower alcohol content, and a higher sugar content. It is almost syrupy in comparison. Usually ryorishu is added first to help tenderize the meat, and much of the alcohol content is cooked away. Mirin is often added later in the cooking process.

Japanese mayonnaise. Important differences from US brands — generally more egg yolks, and less egg white. Rice wine vinegar instead of cider vinegar. Thinner consistency, and a richer flavor. In my opinion, a much more tasty product than regular mayo, and Kewpie brand is very popular here. Added as a condiment to many Japanese dishes and street foods — often sprinkled with bonito flakes and/or nori (seaweed) flakes. 

Tofu. Sold in small blocks, and very reasonably priced here. This package of two 175 gram blocks (about 12 ounces total) for only 78 yen (about 69 cents). Most tofu here is soft. I haven’t found the firm or extra firm type that I buy in the US. We eat a lot of tofu here. It is very versatile, with a texture similar to cooked egg white, and a neutral flavor. It takes on the flavors of whatever it is cooked with. We often have it served cold — cubed and sprinkled with mirin and soy sauce.

Today’s produce. I have talked about Japanese long onion — negi. It is good stewed, roasted, or thinly sliced as a garnish. The apples here are almost the size of softballs, and I can use part of one, then wrap it tightly in plastic and keep it for several days in the refrigerator. Late fall/winter is the season for oranges — mikan — in Japan. These are small mandarin oranges — exceptionally sweet, easy to peel, and seedless. Delicious.

We eat a lot of fish and seafood here in Japan, and this is salmon collar — the cut behind the head and gills, in front of the fillet. Often the fillet is used for sushi, and the collar is sold for cooked dishes. This small package was 169 yen per 100 grams. I will marinate it in mirin and miso paste, and then grill it.

This trip to the supermarket was pretty typical, and cost a little less than 2500 yen — about 22 US dollars.  So, shopping an average of 5 to 6 days per week, means our weekly grocery bill (including wine and other alcoholic beverages) is between $100 and $150 per week. Not too much more than what we spend in the US. 

We eat different things here in Japan, and in general, I think we eat very well. Produce here seems a bit more expensive, but I feel like it is “cleaner” with fewer chemicals and pesticides. We eat small amounts of meat — mostly pork and chicken — and the chicken is cheaper than in the US. Beef is expensive, and we rarely eat it. Eggs in Japan are richer, with bright orange (not yellow) yolks, and are safe to eat raw or undercooked. 

It has been a process learning about Japanese foods and cooking methods — and I still sometimes struggle to find the ingredients I want because most of the labeling is in Japanese. I know that when we do move back to the US, one of the things we will miss about Japan… is the food. 

Personal Safety in the City

pickpocket

My husband had a business meeting in Paris last week, and I went along. Paris is a beautiful city, a wonderful city, and we both love visiting there. We had a weekend before the meeting started to wander our favorite sights and streets, and then I went off on my own while he was working. We have been there often enough now, that we feel fairly comfortable on the Metro, and finding our way around — we know where things are in Paris.

However, our trip started off with a somewhat unsettling incident. We had arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, and took the RER train, as usual, into the city. It is about a 40 minute trip to Chatelet/Les Halles station, where we transferred — luggage and all — to the Number One metro line to our hotel on the western side of the city, near La Defense.

We both are usually very careful about guarding our belongings:  No wallets in the back or side pockets, purses and bags closed and secure, and being aware of the people around us. I have a slash-proof travel bag that I always use, and I had backed myself up against the wall of the train — at rush hour the train was crowded, and no seats were available.

After a few stops, a noisy group of teenage girls got on — 3 or 4 of them. One girl tried to nudge me out of my corner, asking questions (in French? or some other language, I couldn’t tell) and pointing to a subway map on the wall beside me. I moved a little bit, but did not vacate my corner. Then they were all over the place, still loudly asking the other passengers questions and pointing to the maps… to distract us all while one the girls started looking for pockets to pick!

My husband never carries his wallet in an easily accessible location, but after going through immigration at the airport, he absently slid his passport into the side pocket of his cargo pants. Luckily… someone else on the train was suspicious of the behavior of these girls and suddenly yelled “Pickpocket!” His passport fell to the floor just as the doors opened and the girls all ran away.

Truthfully, I don’t think they wanted his passport… I think they were just looking for wallets and cash, but it was an alarming “wake-up” for two seasoned, but jet-lagged and weary travelers. Something that has never happened to us before, and hopefully never will again.

I know pickpockets are very common in Paris and other large cities. The Paris Metro announces warnings at every stop in multiple languages (even Japanese). One does have to be very careful of petty crime in most big cities — Paris, London, New York, Atlanta, etc. But, since this is a blog “about Japan,” I also want to relate a story or two from here in Tokyo.

Certainly, no place is entirely without crime, and you have to guard your personal safety wherever you travel, but I have to say that of all the big cities I have traveled to, I feel the safest in Tokyo. And, for that matter, all of Japan. Just a few examples:

Twice, I have come across coin wallets lying along the sidewalk. Japan has a lot of coins — the smallest paper bill is equivalent to $10 — and many people carry small coin wallets. It is easier to have a coin wallet than to dig through pockets and purses to retrieve the right coins. So, twice I have seen these lying either on a wall or fence along the sidewalk. Someone has dropped it, and someone else has found it and placed it in an obvious location, so that (hopefully) the owner will walk back and find their lost property. It would be better to turn it in at the nearest koban (police box), but when pressed for time, the finder just places it in a conspicuous location. I have no doubt (truly) that every coin is still in the wallet. It is also the same with lost gloves, scarves, hats, coats, etc. They are hung on railings, or placed on walls and fences for the owner to come back to find. “Finders, keepers” does not work here.

In coffee shops and fast food restaurants, customers usually find a table or seat first, placing their belongings on the table, and then going to order food. The reason being that these shops are usually crowded, and if you don’t claim a seat before you order, you may not get a seat. I have seen purses, cellphones, packages, and even computers left unattended on tables in restaurants. No one bothers them. Period.

I have seen unlocked bicycles along the street with packages and sometimes purses in the the basket. I have seen little dogs and (yes) even toddlers left in bicycle seats outside of convenience stores. No doubt mama is watching closely from inside as she dashes in for some necessity, but no one bothers anything.

I have no really solid explanation other than that the Japanese (by and large) are a very honest and extremely honorable society. They truly value honesty and integrity. They truly want to do the right thing, and treat everyone with kindness, respect, and honor. Like I said, I am sure there are exceptions, and that there is crime to be found, but so much less than I have seen in other countries.

Japan is an amazing country — an amazing people, and an amazing culture. If only more people in the world could behave this way…

 

 

Wakarimasen… moichido yukkuri, onegaishimasu…

(I don’t understand… One more time, slowly, please.)

I just returned from a very brain-draining spouses’ language/culture class at my husband’s company. And my brain is feeling fried. Atama ga itai desu, yo! (My head hurts, you know!) I want to participate in these classes, but I admit they can sometimes be very stressful for me. Today —  was especially humbling.

I enjoy getting together with these women, but I am still the only American, and also the only truly native English speaker in the group. There are several from India and Pakistan who speak English, but often when they are together with each other they speak in other languages instead. There are also several from Korea, Taiwan, and China who can communicate (at least to some degree) with each other because their languages are all based on the Chinese kanji characters. Japanese is also based on those Chinese kanji, so our teachers (sensei, in Japanese) can more easily speak to them.

I usually hang out somewhere in the middle of our group, and try to understand as much as I can from both sides of the room. Our teachers speak only a little English, so they can’t easily explain a language concept to me. At this point, I know only a few of the kanji characters, but I can read the kana — katakana and hiragana — characters. Sensei writes things on the board in a mix of kanji and kana… and she usually translates the kanji characters into kana for me. And sometimes she will write it in romaji — the Roman alphabet.

My husband and I both really want to learn Japanese. We have taken three sessions of classes with a private instructor, and we use several language apps on our phones and computers, but after almost three years here, we are still only minimally conversant in Japanese. I have learned a lot of Japanese vocabulary and grammar, and I can usually understand the gist of a conversation — if they would just slow down and speak clearly.

My husband talks about this problem a lot. The official language of his company is English, and every employee hired has to have a certain proficiency in English. But often he struggles to understand what people are saying to him because they are speaking Korean-English, or Japanese-English, or Indian-English, etc. We all tend to accent and enunciate the words in a significantly different way.

For example: Today, one of my Korean friends in the group, was trying to tell me that I should visit Hamarikyu (a garden near where she lives in Tokyo.) She kept saying the name over and over, and I kept shaking my head trying to understand what she was saying. Then another person in our group said it in a slightly different way, and… AHA! I got it! I have been to Hamarikyu several times, and am familiar with the name. I just couldn’t understand it the way she was saying it.

The point of all this, I guess, is that language — and therefore communication — is a really difficult thing. We have to work hard at it. And, beyond the mechanics of language, we have to work really hard to truly understand each other. I am not just talking about words. Our language is part of who we are, and is linked to our culture, our upbringing, our values, and our experiences. We aren’t just communicating our words. We are “communicating” who we are, and how we view the world.

Yes… it is a struggle. Yes… it is difficult. But I think it is worth it, and I am not going to give up on it. This is how we connect. This is how we unite. This is how we learn to understand and respect each other — not as individuals of many different races, but as members of the same HUMAN race.