Anne, Frances and Richard in Japan,
October-November 2007

First of all, I would just like to say how proud we are of Anne. While finishing the last project for her Bachelor of Computer Science at Carleton University, she found time to take an intensive course in the Japanese language and to qualify for her black belt in karate. By the end of the summer she had graduated from university with extremely high marks (better marks than either of your parents, Anne!), had become reasonably fluent in Japanese and had passed her karate test. To celebrate, she joined her karate dojo's tour of Japan. But that not being quite enough of an adventure, she also organized for herself another two weeks working for room and board on an organic farm near Date in Hokkaido, and several more weeks of touring around the country by train. You can read more about her adventures on her own blog. We joined her for 9 days from October 27 to November 4. It was simply delightful to have her company and especially her help and guidance in remote places where almost no-one spoke any English. Not only was she very willing to ask for directions (and she understood the answers), but she could also read and interpret many of the signs and menus.

Japan was a fantastic and very foreign experience. Everything was so strange and wonderful! I took literally hundreds of photos - it's been very difficult to select which ones to display here.

Anne found us at the airport and got us into town to her chosen hotel, a place we could never have stayed at independently because it wasn't set up to cater to non-speakers of Japanese. I think she has a picture of their decidedly odd-to-us breakfast on her blog. That night, as for all our nights except the last one, we slept on thin futons in a tatami-mat room and dutifully went shoeless on the mats. Slippers were provided for walking around the hotel, and a different pair of slippers just for wearing in the toilet room. These Japanese-style hotels also laid out yukata, or dressing-gowns, that most guests wore everywhere in the common areas. Sometimes Richard did that, but even the large size was a bit immodest on me and Anne. I could walk to the common soaking hot bath in a yukata, but I couldn't sit down in a public place wearing it. We have decided, though, that we are in love with the "washlet" toilets that have heated seats and a separate little shower to give your nether parts a good, warm, relaxing rinse.

Anne's new black belt, with her name in Japanese characters.

Frances in yukata, on the futon beds in our Tokyo hotel room.

Richard in yukata and jacket at the Mount Aso resort.


Bride at the Meiji Shrine

We had that evening and the next day in Tokyo, so we toured the bright lights of the Ginza shopping district, ate cheap tempura and expensive cream cakes on Saturday night, then on Sunday marvelled at the Meiji shrine where happy couples were getting married at the rate of a pair every twenty minutes or so, with the brides in outfits that must have cost tens of thousands of dollars. There was also a short set of stage performances for the benefit of tourists. While a small band in elaborate headdresses played flutes and gongs a single costumed dancer would go through a set of VERY slow fighting moves and poses. I'm afraid we got bored and left before the end.

So we walked went back back through the park and marvelled at the teens playing extreme dress-up on Harajuku bridge. This was also our first exposure to the fashionable Tokyo walk -- a pigeon-toed and knock-kneed slouch, preferably in stiletto-heeled or platform-soled knee-high boots. It being the Sunday before Hallowe'en, many of the kids were dressed up in costume and "trick-or-treating" through the stores, who also had their staff in costume handing out candy. One street was blocked to traffic so that there could be an informal parade.

A monorail ride through just exactly the kind of glass-steel-concrete towers that 1950s magazines said would be the world of the future took us to Teleport Town on recovered land in Tokyo harbour, where we toured the museum of emerging technology. Richard and Anne were in their element investigating the robotics displays.

You really must click on this picture for the full latex effect...

Take a closer look at that demure schoolgirl's knee stocking...

Bullet train


Exquisitely presented sashimi

Kumamoto castle by night

Most of Monday was consumed in just getting to Kumamoto in the southern island of Kyushu by bullet train. We couldn't take the very fastest, most direct Nozomi train because our Japan Rail passes wouldn't work on it. Anne was starting to get the message about her parents' bizarre tourist habits - either we'd eat at a really nice place for an insane price, or we'd grab snacks or eat at a hole in the wall, and hey, the last of the big spenders, a meal for all three of us would cost $22.

There were three draws in Kumamoto - a huge castle, a famous "strolling garden" Suizen-ji, and Danny Schwartz, the brother of Anne's friend Beth, who is taking a third year abroad at a Kumamoto university. We fed Danny lunch the next day (okonomiyaki, an egg-flour batter that you fill with a bowl of veggies and, if you wish, some meat, and then fry for yourself on a grill in the middle of your table) while he imparted some of his new cultural learning. E.g. the women on the street who are dressed like tarts are normal teenagers. The real tarts are the ones wearing prom dresses.

We also made some cultural discoveries of our own. Drainage canals are very clean with water so clear that you can easily see the plants growing at the bottom and the koi swimming around. School children are all in uniform with coloured hats. The proper way to exchange money with a shopkeeper is with both hands, often on a special little tray.

To Richard's unbounded delight, our train ride to Akamizu ("Red Water") inside the huge Mount Aso caldera included a "Train of Alishan" section. This is used to get up a very steep slope. The train stops at one station, then the tracks are switched and it goes into reverse to get part way up the slope, stops on another siding, the tracks are switched again, and the train goes forward again, thus describing a backwards "Z" up the side of the mountain. This was delightful to Richard in particular because his MaSci students had had to make their Lego robots get all the way up a "Train of Alishan" track in one of their competitions, and now here was the real thing.

The ryokan we stayed at in Akamizu was a large, old-fashioned resort with outdoor hot baths from the volcanic springs. Franceswas the only one of the family who appreciated the baths, though. Their dinners consisted of more than a dozen small plates, all with the most exquisite presentation. The parents had quite a bit of fish both cooked and not-so-cooked, while Anne had a greater variety of vegetables and tortured tofu. (The results of torturing tofu are, we're happy to say, mostly very tasty.) She's fallen in love with Japanese autumn vegetables, from chestnuts, to all the varieties of sweet potato, to what they call pumpkin and we'd call squash.

Two nights there let us spend a whole day tramping around the Aso caldera and the one most active crater within it, Nakadake, bubbling with sulphurous water. The whole area was a mixture of Niagara Falls-type kitsch (ferrocement hemispheric hobbit houses in the Aso Farmland Resort, next to the performing monkey attraction) and natural beauty. We sampled both offerings: buying rock ornaments from a pathside vendor, riding the cable car to the crater and hiking along paved or wooden paths. Spotted a raccoon-like animal fairly close to the volcano museum (and he was cooperative in posing for my photo) and a large praying mantis on the path beside the road. The crater was really impressive, with a wide variety of coloured rock layers. One section reminded me strongly of the photos from the Mars rovers - and coincidentally, there were "rover tracks" in the black sand!

Later that afternoon, while Anne was Internetting, we strolled around the town of Aso and found both a very old temple (8th century) and some very new-looking statuettes. We're really not very clear on these religious obects, but we found them all over the place, and often wearing bibs or aprons.

Mount Aso

Should Nakadake suddenly erupt, run for this shelter

Buddha at Nakadake

Images at 8th-century shrine, Aso town

Click to see the whole feast



More train-zooming the next day took us to Kyoto and another ryokan that we'd found through Japanese Guest Houses - a Web-based business that acts as an intermediary between curious tourists and traditional Japanese hotels, neither of whom understand each other's language or expectations particularly well. (In addition to its reservation service that allows you to specify whether you want a private bathroom or vegetarian meals, the site explains everything from how to enter the ryokan to how to bathe...) The Hotel Matsui offered Anne more tortured tofu, plus a few less-successful delicacies, while Richard and I feasted shamelessly. This time the meal was offered in our room on little trays on the tatami mats, with a waitress who had good enough English to explain what we were supposed to do with the food. No, I can't kneel for a whole supper. As soon as she was out of sight I sprawled my legs out in front of me -- and so did the others.

We had not nearly enough time to do Kyoto justice and must go back for at least another week sometime, though whether that should be in spring tree-blossom and iris time, summer lotus season or the peak of their fall maples will be a hard choice. Between the charming crafts stores and gorgeously-presented food stalls, just a handful of the temples and shrines that had appealed to us at random from the guidebook, and the natural beauties of the hills where Japanese maples were just starting to turn, the Philosopher's Walk along a canal, a bamboo forest and tiny perfect lakes and rivers, we didn't leave ourselves any time at all for the museums and other indoor delights. The temperatures, as elsewhere, urged us just to keep enjoying the outdoors - 18 to 20 degrees feels like heaven after Manila. We rented bicycles in one park so that we could visit more of the shrines and temples in our short time there. But then we got lost looking for the bus to the Golden Temple. However, that meant that we saw it at its best, lit with that late afternoon sun making its reflection glow in the surrounding lake.

I should mention the bicycles: everywhere we went, people used bicycles as a normal form of transport. They were usually single speed with hand brakes, a kick stand, a simple lock for the back wheel and practical baskets on the front. You would see all kinds of people riding them without any special outfit or special shoes (quite funny to see a fashionable young lady in stiletto boots hop on her bike and fit the pedals in the arched insteps of the boots.) It was SO refreshing to see so many cycling or walking, and it really had a wonderful effect of reducing traffic and air pollution.

Lighting the hot pot

Even Kentucky has a Japanese face

Cellphones, kimonos and the Golden Pavilion

Very Important Moss - as found in the Silver Pavilion's gardens

Mount Fuji

Back in Tokyo

Our last night in Tokyo was the only one we spent in Western style beds, and we were kind of not sorry to get back to thicker mattresses (not to mention the easier time of it getting back on one's feet in the mornings). We had conveyor-belt sushi for dinner, a walk past an amazing floodlit pagoda, and at last!!! a chance for Richard to see the famous comet from the grounds of a darkened shrine. (Although we'd had no complaints about the daytime weather, all our nights had been cloudy up till then).

The next day, the majority voted for a morning at Ueno zoo -- okay, I admit, giant pandas are nothing to be blasé about, and we were able to confirm the identities of the kingfishers, herons, storks, cranes and even the raccoon dog that we'd seen in the wild earlier in the week.

There was just time for Koraku-en Garden, a last glorious hour in green beauty that had been honed to perfection for centuries, before we had to trek back to the hotel, pick up our bags and catch the Skyliner out to Narita Airport.

Ueno Park and Zoo


Some of the human animals were quite interesting, too!

One of the lakes in Ueno Park reminded me of Stratford - complete with swans :-)

Full moon bridge.

Seriously competitive Little Leaguers

We said goodbye to Anne at Ueno Station. Really we could not have done this without her. It's a lovely country but it is one of the most foreign places we've ever been, and without a guide who knew the language and basic do's and don'ts we would have been floundering.

As it is, we had just enough help in understanding the language, both written and spoken, that we were able to relax and appreciate what civilization can mean. Teenage boys wandering around with droopy pants, their cellphone hanging precariously out of one back pocket and their wallet out of the other back pocket. Try that in Toronto. Or Manila. A waitress chasing us down the street because there was a 20-cent mistake in our change. Fastidiously clean public parks. Fabulously fresh, seasonal food with infinite local variations. People who stand back to let you off elevators, or the subway. Neighbourhood maps every 100 meters or so in Tokyo (an absolute necessity. Oh dear, but we did spend rather a lot of time being lost, especially in Kyoto...). And two thousand years of culture that in so many places is still very much alive. Japan - magical!