Saturday, October 2, 2010
Lost In Translation
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.
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.
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.
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 ...