Saturday, October 2, 2010

Lost In Translation

I went to Japan exactly a year ago but forgot to post about some of my experiences there.

Japan has long been on my travel wish-list and I was starting to wonder when I was going to make it there until my friend GP told me that she was stopping there for a week on her way back from London to Melbourne and asked if I wanted to come. We met in Tokyo and stayed there for a day before moving on to Kyoto for 2 days and then back to Tokyo for the remainder of the time.

I was fully expecting to suffer from horrendous jet lag and was unfortunately right. After a 14 hour flight and a 9 hour time difference, I got to our first hotel, the B Akasaka in the district of the same name, early in the evening and barely able to remember my own name. G and I managed to squeeze in a quick sushi dinner locally before collapsing into bed at around 9pm. I woke up at 4am the next day and was unable to get back to sleep. So it is in a rather time-zone confused daze but with barely contained excitement that we ventured into the heart of the city the next morning ... except there is no heart to it. Tokyo doesn't really have a center as such - it is instead a fascinating patchwork of neighbourhoods, each with their own distinctive personality.

I have to admit that I was a little underwhelmed in our first few hours. We walked from Akasaka to the Imperial Palace only to realise that it couldn't be seen as it is a closely guarded fortress and only the surrounding gardens can be glimpsed at. From there, we walked to Ginza, the high end shopping district (although we had no intention of shopping) and we were surprised by the nearly deserted long avenues. With the tall buildings and Western designer stores, we could have been in any other large urban cities in the world and I started to fear that perhaps the Tokyo of my fantasies did not exist.

Thankfully we started to walk away from Ginza and into some of the small adjacent streets and the feeling subsided as we were surrounded by signs in Japanese characters, older low-rise buildings and houses. I started to really fall in love with Tokyo at lunch time as we followed a group of locals ducking under a piece of fabric hung over a door that lead to a steep and narrow staircase, with only a heady smell betraying the fact that it was a restaurant. We gestured to the host that we wanted to have lunch and were lead to a communal rectangular table in the tiny but beautifully decorated dining room. From the pictures on the menu, we worked out that the restaurant's speciality was Ramen (we soon realized that restaurants in Japan tend to specialize in just one type of food, mastering it perfectly as a result) and ordered the pork version. It was honestly the best ramen I ever had in my entire life and I knew then that this country was going to be heaven for a foodie like me.

G and I had both been warned against taking the subway but adventurous as we are, we decided to try it in order to get to Akusaka. While it is a first glance a complete maze of lines, colours and japanese characters, once you spend some time trying to work it out, it is actually quite straight forward, extremely reliable, clean and punctual and frankly the best way to get around Tokyo, which is a deceptively large city.

Despite having been almost entirely destroyed during WWII (as was much of Tokyo actually), Akusaka is considered to be one of the last few areas of the city that is representative of a more modest, old-style Tokyo and used to be the red light district for a long time.  And this is where my love of Tokyo was cemented as we weaved through crowds of people shopping at small market stalls on the way to the Senso-Ji shrine, overwhelmed by the bright colors of the multitude of trinkets they sold (from sushi candy to plastic cats) and the weird and wonderful food items we had never seen before. We meandered through all the tiny side streets, engulfed by the smoke and delicious smell that came from make-shift restaurants crammed next to one another, usually consisting of nothing more than a hob, a busy cook and a small table on the pavement packed with locals eating and drinking in between puffing on their cigarette.

The next day, we made our way to Kyoto on the bullet train despite our confusion over the difference between express, rapid and super express trains (as it turns out rapid is faster than express!). We had opted to stay in a Ryokan there, which is a traditional Japanese guest house. Ours, the Motonago, was located in the picturesque, cobbled and narrow streets of the historical Gion district, steps away from the Maryana gardens and its multitude myriad of temples and shrines.

Ryokans are like doll houses in the sense that everything is small and close to the ground. At 5ft3, I am not exactly tall but even I felt like a big, clumsy thing is such tiny quarters. Our room consisted of a corridor with hidden wardrobes and a central open space covered in tatami mats with a low table in the centre, a mirror (mysteriously covered at all times with an ornate cloth) and a small raised area decorated with a minimalist flower arrangement (which we were told was a sacred shrine, prompting me to quickly remove the handbag I had conveniently put there!).

While we had already guessed at the importance of etiquette in Japan, it truly came to life there in a ritual and almost spiritual way. Shoes had to be removed at the entrance of the Ryokan and slippers were provided to us, as well as a light cotton kimono to relax in when we were in the house. A chambermaid served us elaborate, multi-course breakfasts and dinners in our room with a sense of decorum and precision in the placement of the various dishes on the table that made us feel … unsophisticated. In fact, the feeling of us unwittingly being rude and unrefined foreigners is one that persisted throughout our trip – in a country so steeped in tradition and ritual, it is impossible to know which unwritten rule one might be breaking at any given time. Although none of our Japanese hosts made us feel that way, I am sure it is due to their extreme politeness and that they would never have wanted to make us feel awkward by pointing out our mistakes.

One of the best things about staying in a Ryokan for me was most definitely having a Japanese bath. I've never been a bath person (I get bored far too quickly to stay in one for more than a few minutes) so entered the bathroom with some skepticism at first. I was faced with a row of low stools each facing a mirror and equipped with a shower hose and a deep bath on the other. Having thankfully read up about it before, I knew that I had to shower before dipping myself in the bath as everyone shares the same. Showering sitting down while avoiding looking at with my naked-self was not particularly relaxing and afterwards I forced myself into what I knew would be a very hot bath … and into pure 43C heaven. Instantly, my sore muscles melted and all the tension disappeared. I never managed to stay in the bath for more than 10 minutes as the intense heat made my heart race a little too scarily but it was the most unbelievable experience.

We had such an amazing trip in a country that is incredibly different to any other in the world that it is very hard to summarize or describe all of it in an accurate manner.

There are so many more things I could write about without doing them any justice. Visiting the Tsukiji fish market at 5am when trading is at its peak and trying to avoid being run over by the myriad of motorised vehicles that erratically transport the merchandise. Noticing Japanese men's fondness for Louis Vuitton "man bags". Arriving at restaurants at 8pm to find rows of business men drunkenly slumped on their yakitori, only waking up to do another shot of Sake. Finding vending machines at every street corner, selling everything from water, to coffee, candy and cigarettes. The toilets of course - a mind-boggling experience at first but it's funny how easy it is to get used to heated toilet seats. And the always funny and sometimes puzzling deformation of the English language we encountered everywhere - "well come", "there is a difference, please note one's feet" ...

Wonderfully lost in translation indeed ...

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