Hiroshima

Confession time: I am that tourist. The one who goes to a famous place and comes away without seeing its most famous sites.

“What did you think of the cathedral?” It was early in my time in France, and we had just returned from a trip to Rouen.

“What cathedral?” I asked. Given the head shaking that went on after this display of ignorance, I knew I’d missed something major.

Later I looked it up and learned that Notre-Dame in Rouen is famed for being the tallest cathedral in France, for its three towers, each in different styles, and for having been captured in a series of 30 paintings by Monet.

I have no idea how we missed it. Likely we were too busy arguing over where to eat lunch, or looking for a working toilet.

But there was no way we were going to leave Japan without visiting the A-bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. My husband, who is far better versed in current events and recent history than I, was keen to visit the site that commemorates the destruction of a single act of nuclear warfare. And I must admit to a certain curiosity: what would the city so famous for that tragedy be like today?

The museum was everything you might imagine it to be. An imposing space with curated stories of so many lives lost and touched by the bomb, impressively documented with photographs, clothing, remnants of everyday life. It was dark, both literally and figuratively. And as someone with an overactive imagination, not to mention a fear of enclosed spaces, I was uncomfortable. The suffering of fellow humans, no matter how historically significant, makes me want to flee.

Outside, I watched a group of schoolchildren visiting the site. I wondered how it was for them, as young Japanese, whether they felt touched by the events of the past. Or if, as for children around the world, the tragedies of previous generations are too long ago and far away to seem relevant.

This monument in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is dedicated to the students whose lives were lost in the bombing.

As for Hiroshima today, it is a modern city much like others in Japan. But it has a bit of a vibe, and a popular street-food culture. Which we enjoyed sampling for lunch. Like okonomiyaki, a delicious pancake of cabbage, noodles and oysters prepared and eaten directly off the grill.

For our two nights in Hiroshima before flying out to Okinawa, we stayed in a grand old lady of a hotel next to the main station. It was somewhat impersonal, as big hotels often are, but a welcome break after our previous nights in traditional Japanese accommodation. There was a breakfast buffet at the main restaurant, called ‘Dish Parade’, and the star of the place was this cute little cat robot. The robot acted as a busboy, moving slowly up and down the aisles with blinking eyes and friendly music as people put their empty trays on it. Until it became so overloaded it went into sleep mode and someone came to clear the dishes and reboot it.

I loved watching this funny little robot, and the way people interacted with it. To me it somehow captured all the contradictions of Japan, from intensely modern to heart-warmingly human.

What kind of tourist are you?

Naoshima

The next leg of our trip offered some of what were, for me, the most memorable moments of our time in Japan – some of which were unexpected.

We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Okayama, where we stopped for lunch at a little Italian place by the station. Full disclosure: at that point, as much as I love fish, I was ready to sell my soul for anything but. I don’t remember what we ate exactly, but it was delightfully fish-free!

Our plan was to get a bus from the train station to Uno Port, where we would catch the ferry to Naoshima. The complexity came in finding where to get the right bus. A first attempt failed, at which point I got a little stroppy and insisted my Google app knew better than my husband’s. It then led us down a ramp to an underground bicycle parking garage. Stefan immediately saw my mistake and high-tailed it, chuckling demonically at my navigating skills, while a very nice man in a uniform helped me lug my heavy suitcase back up the bicycle ramp.

On the bus…

We finally got on a bus going the right way and managed to determine that it would indeed take us to the ferry port, a fact that was confirmed by the announcements in both Japanese and English. Still, every now and then Stefan got up to check we hadn’t missed our stop with the driver, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the locals. As we approached the ferry port, it made me smile when several Japanese passengers got up to tell us it was time to get off.

The short ferry ride took us to Naoshima’s Miyanoura port. The little island on the Seto Inland Sea is known for its iconic pumpkin which some clever marketing people have used to brand everything. A quick shout-out to fellow blogger and journalist Colin Bisset, who made the brilliant suggestion we include the art island on our tour.

On our first evening, whether due to local custom or the fact that it was near the end of the season, very few restaurants were open for dinner. It was raining as we ventured out to a place described on Google maps as an izakaya (pub-style restaurant). This appealed as we had spent the weeks before our trip watching – and loving — Midnight Diner.

Pushing open the door, we entered a run-down looking place with a few dilapidated stools around the bar. Behind it was a lone man, cigarette dangling from his lips as he worked over the grill. I hesitated, wondering if we were quite ready for something this, well, local. But we took the leap. He brought us beer and a simple menu. A few minutes later, a man entered the bar, looking at us in surprise as he chatted to the chef/owner. Then three older women came in, followed by a young guy. Everyone seemed to know each other and they all seemed rather curious about us. Then the man, apparently the official emissary of the other customers, asked us a few questions: where were we from, etc. After a little hemming and hawing, he asked us if we would mind changing seats and sitting on the other side of the bar; it seemed that we were sitting on their ‘regular’ stools. It broke the ice. We found ourselves sitting next to the young guy, who spoke enough English that we were able to have a conversation. In the meantime, while we were waiting for our food, several tourists entered and were turned away. It seemed that the policy of the place was to take just a few guests and no more. Just as well, given that the old guy was on his own and took the time to prepare everything from scratch on a small cutting board.

When the food came, it was delicious. Well worth the wait, cigarette smoke aside, and insanely cheap. Overall, a unique experience and what felt like a slice of local life.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by this sculpture beautifully lit up for night.

The next day saw us checking out the island’s main art museum, Benesse House. It was a fascinating place both for the architecture and the pieces displayed — modern and monumental.

Before we took the ferry out that afternoon, we stopped for some edible art. Oddly enough, the little patisserie was a one-woman-show of its own, run by a pastry chef who had trained in…Lyon. And yes, the chocolate cake tasted just as good as it looked!

Next stop: Hiroshima

Arashiyama

I’ve been revisiting some of my most memorable moments from our trip to Japan. Of all the shrines and temples, perhaps the one that most captured my imagination was Otagi-Nembutsuji and the nearby bamboo forests.

Like most places in this land of contrasts, getting there is half the fun – that is, if you like solving puzzles! Travelling in Japan made me realize just how heavily we have to come to rely on technology to get around. Whether due to the the complexity of the geography, the dense urban nature of the country or perhaps the language, Google maps was not to be relied upon. In many instances it got you to the approximate location, but something almost always got lost in translation. We got very good at wandering around until one of us figured it out. And in many cases, kind local people came to our rescue. Between their bits of English and Stefan’s limited Japanese, we were never stuck for long. To visit the Otagi-Nembutsuji temple, we took the train to Saga-Arashayima station, then tried to get there by bus but failed. In the end we gave up and took a taxi. Thankfully cabs in Japan are cheap and readily available.

This Buddhist temple has a fascinating history dating back to 766 but has been ruined by natural disasters and rebuilt multiple times. For me the attraction was the moss-covered statuary adorning the hillsides.

The hundreds of comical characters are so expressive, and the way they have become part of nature is a call to meditation itself.

We walked down to the village and took a short hike through the Arashiyama bamboo forest. Peace and serenity lurk among those rows of trees perhaps more than in any religious site.

After our walk we found a little café for lunch. In another amusing cultural contrast, the very traditional place had a poster of Saturday Night Fever with a little shrine to Olivia Newton John behind the bar.

To each his own religion, n’est-ce pas?

Sapuraizu!

Japan is a land of surprises. One of the first for me was how much it resembles Switzerland: well-groomed and safe, with spectacular mountains and fast, efficient trains. Another was the food: I mean, pickle sticks?

It’s all part of an incredibly quirky country. Vending machines on every street corner. Umbrella stands with locks outside public buildings. And, whether due to Covid or potential terrorist attacks, no trash cans to be found on the incredibly clean streets; apparently they take their rubbish home with them. Dog walkers even carry bottles of water to rinse their pets’ pee from the pavement.

After a few days in Tokyo, we got our Japan Rail passes and took the Shinkansen, or bullet train, to Kyoto. It was a 2.5 hour ride, smooth and uneventful, other than the deciphering of very complicated instructions in the toilets (par for the course in the land of the Toto).

Along the way we had a view of breathtaking Mount Fuji. I didn’t bother taking a photo – it was far away and besides, you know what it looks like, right?

Arriving in Kyoto main station was impressive. The architecture of the main hall is strikingly modern and filled with shopping and food experiences. Who knew donuts were a thing in Japan?

On a side note, the store is a central feature of modern-day Japan. The department store in the station, with its abundance of merchandise and polished staff, reminded me of Klara and the Sun, Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about an ‘Artificial Friend’ who works as a greeter at such a store when the book begins. And the abundance of 7 Eleven and Lawson’s Station shops all over Japan made me think of Convenience Store Woman, by Sayaka Murata, an incredibly simple story which I also loved.

We took a taxi to our rental, an historic architect’s house called The Old Modern. Built in 1928, it has been carefully refurbished and converted into holiday rental suites but retains many of the original features – lovely wooden floors and tatami mats, wall coverings etc. First up: no shoes. This is true throughout Japan, where shoes are left by the door and slippers used within. These are provided, as long as you are willing to slip your tootsies into shared footwear. Being of a fussy nature, I procured my own from the aforementioned department store (cheap, and aren’t they cute?).

True to its name, the place was long on style but less so on comfort. It had all the essentials: a comfortable bed (actual bed, not futons), lounge area, coffee and tea, etc. But the building is the original structure, so the walls are windows are not air tight (we felt the vibrations of every passing vehicle). Most homes in Japan are minimally heated, and while it was not exactly cold we did feel the damp. On the plus side was this beautiful interior garden, so typical of Japanese houses.

The main attraction in Kyoto is the shrines, so we headed out to those for the next couple of days. So did a great many other tourists. The thing in Japan that is utterly different from most of Switzerland is density. No matter when you go, there are a great many other people who are also doing the same thing. Still, the shrines and temples are amazing: Yasaka, Kiyomizu and Jishu, the lover’s shrine, where we saw another proliferation of wishes.

The streets in Japan’s ancient capital are filled with people wearing traditional clothing, many of whom are couples celebrating weddings. But others, whether monks or geishas, are also at home there. In one street well known for its geishas, our guide explained that there is a ‘no photography’ rule to protect the privacy of clients. What surprised me most was the wooden footwear. How they manage to clomp around the streets and up the steps of the shrines remains a mystery.

Our second stay in Kyoto was at a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. Our two nights there featured all the essentials that make this such a memorable experience: changing into our yukata and visiting the public baths, sleeping on futons laid out on tatami mats, a multi-course kaiseki meal served at low tables in our room. Another surprise for me in Japan was the food, with its rich variety of tastes and textures, making me realize just how much more diverse is the cuisine than our limited view from the west. It is so much more than sushi and tempura, although I love both.

One memorable food experience was lunch with my husband’s former colleague and her partner, who did not speak much English. While Ayumi and Stefan compared notes from the corporate world, Daisuke and I nodded and smiled over the succession of beautiful dishes.

Before leaving the city for the next part of our journey, we returned to Kyoto main station and took a friend’s recommendation to sample the beef at the rooftop restaurant there. Despite the touristy location, the wagyu beef was melt-in-the-mouth and as a bonus, I enjoyed a half-bottle of fine French Bordeaux!

Now that the year-end festivities are behind us, I hope to be back with more surprising memories of Japan soon. Until then, thank you for reading and bonne année 2023!

Finding my feet in Japan

Imagine you have a month to travel anywhere in the world. Amazing, right?

When the opportunity landed in our lap thanks to my husband’s job, part of me was thrilled. But in truth, I’ve never been much of a world traveller. Don’t get me wrong: I like to experience new places. What I enjoy a lot less is getting there. Since I met Stefan in Toronto all those years ago and ended up moving to France, seeing family and friends means crossing an ocean, or at least the English Channel with our daughter in the UK.

But November? We would have to go much further afield for decent weather. Not to mention Covid. Planning any kind of big trip this year felt like a crap shoot with the pandemic working its way around the world, and the rules about vaccines and PCR tests constantly shifting. Plus, a whole lot of other stuff: a new grandchild, a move in the offing (even though it’s off for now), what feels like uncertainty for the future.

But if there’s one thing that’s held true in life for me it’s this: if an opportunity comes along, you take it. So when the Japanese government announced it was dropping most travel restrictions and opening to tourism again in September, we booked. A first for me; the third time for my husband, a confirmed Japanophile. His last trip in January 2020 had been skiing in Hokkaido. We decided to focus on the southern half of the country.

Landing in Tokyo after a 14-hour flight was a relief. No matter how many times I do it, sitting in a metal tube as it shoots through the atmosphere 35,000 feet in the air makes me nervous. I am that annoying passenger who keeps their light on the whole time. I read, I scribble, try to focus on a film…but my eyes keep going back to that bloody screen. Even though it was longer, it was reassuring to see that we avoided Russian airspace.

It was also my first time in Asia. And I realized as we walked down the street that it was my first experience as a visible minority. Most of my previous travel in exotic destinations has been in places that attract hordes of tourists. In Japan, while we did see non-Asian faces at key locations, we were often alone in the crowd. Which was not a problem at all. Mostly I forgot about appearances in the struggle to understand; occasionally I caught a few furtive looks and remembered that we were clearly outsiders.

The first day in Tokyo we were so exhausted from the trip that I barely noticed when the earth moved shortly after we checked into our hotel room on the 8th floor.

“Did you bump into the bed just now?” I asked my husband. He looked over from where he was unpacking his suitcase and shook his head.

“Can’t you feel that?” The bed was shaking. It lasted about a minute and then it stopped. Later we learned that there had been an earthquake in Southern Honshu (Japan’s main island). Thankfully there was no fallout from the quake (5.6 at its epicenter). I guess it was Japan’s way of shaking my hand in greeting.

Our hotel in the Shiba-koen district was the perfect landing pad, set on a quiet residential street with good access to the lively Minato area with its tall office towers. There is a nearby shrine and statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, in the park. The area also offers nice views of the Tokyo Tower, inspired by the Eiffel. It helped me to feel at home.

But Tokyo is big. It is bigger than any other city I’ve experienced. And even after a few days exploring it, we barely grazed the surface.

Getting around was half the fun, even though I must admit that after my welcome handshake, I was happiest taking the Yamanote Line of the subway system which mostly runs above ground. Also, we did a lot of walking which is probably why I managed to enjoy so many treats without carrying away extra baggage.

Some of my most distinct memories:

A tea-tasting experience. Husband doesn’t drink but I took the course with alcohol. To be honest, by the time we found the place I needed something to take the edge off. And while I’m at it: some of the tea-inspired tastes (including eating tea leaves) left me less than inspired, but the herbal and tea-infused gin and tonic was delicious!

A walk around Ueno Park, with its shrine and museums, beautiful especially as darkness fell and the lights came on.

Crossed with the crowds at the chaotic Shibuya intersection. Waited in a line-up of people taking selfies with the famous dog, Hachiko, a Japanese Akita dog memorialized for his incredible loyalty; the story goes he waited at Shibuya Station every day for nine years after his owner’s death.

Had a drink in the bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, made famous in one of my favourite films, ‘Lost in Translation’.

Visited the Meiji shrine where we witnessed a Shinto wedding in progress.

I was captivated by all of wishes written on small wooden plaques called ‘emas’. Especially this one…

While I don’t know the author of that wish, I will borrow her sentiment. While were in Japan we celebrated our wedding anniversary: I am grateful that my barnacle husband has stuck to me for 36 years!

Stefan stayed on for an extra week of Japanese language training while I flew home. As per my usual ritual, I imbibed whatever was on offer during the flight while watching the slow progress of our plane on the screen, this time along a route I’d never flown before: straight north, skirting the eastern coast of Russia to Alaska, then across the top of the globe at 37,000 feet to Scandinavia and down.

So now I’m back and still digesting it all, especially the wonderful food. I will share more in my next post.

What is your most memorable travel experience?