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

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?

Du piment dans la vie

Variety may be the spice of life but I am a creature of habit.

While I enjoy many different flavours, I am addicted to one particular spice: freshly ground pepper. Defying all rules of gastronomy, I cannot begin a meal without a few turns of the mill over my plate. Recently I added salt to the grind, a far more unhealthy habit. But how I love those little salt bombs!

I am also cursed with bad luck when it comes to pepper grinders. Over my lifetime I have gone through half a dozen of the things. All start well enough but end in the same way: spewing chunks of pepper rather than producing finely ground flakes. Is it simply because they get so much use? Or is it in the quality of the mechanism?

Now that our last combined S&P mill by Bodum has ‘rendu l’âme’ (given up the ghost) we have procured the king and queen of salt and pepper mills: Peugeot. I was vaguely aware that the French name most famous for automobiles also made mills. But I was surprised to learn that they began by making coffee mills and all kinds of steel implements, from saws to watch springs. The ‘moulin à poivre’ was introduced by Peugeot in 1874, way before they got around to making their first motor vehicle.

Now I see why they chose the lion for their logo: sharp teeth!

Only time will tell if these new beauties will live up to that reputation. For now, they work like wonders on both salt and pepper, with varying choices of grind size to boot.

Speaking of grinds, we are still struggling to figure out the future of our new home project. No news, I suspect, is not good news. Nonetheless, next week will see us taking off for Japan (fingers crossed I get a negative PCR test) and by the time we return in December I hope there will be more clarity as to when (or if) we will be able to plan our move next year. In the meantime, I will be trying very hard not to think about it.

How do you spice up your life?

Folle-Dingue

There have always been crazies in my life and, as much as I dislike the stereotype, they are almost always female.

When we moved to our first apartment in Lyon years ago there was a folle-dingue on the top floor who took an instant dislike to us. Was it the dogs (our first two Frenchies, the dynamic duo Edouard and Dorothée) or the fact that I was foreign? We never knew and it didn’t matter. She sprewed insults whenever she got the chance, and once when we left our groceries by the elevator for a few minutes, we found the top of a baguette ripped off. Other than that, she was harmless enough. But her gratuitous meanness felt like a personal assault.

Our next-door neighbour back in Chens-sur-Léman was not quite up there in the crazy category but she was close enough to qualify. She walked around her yard starkers and frequently screamed like a banshee at her husband and son, along with anyone else who got in her way. (I say that in all humility, being known to be no shrinking violet myself.) I avoided her as much as possible.

It seems we have a new folle-dingue in our lives. She lives in the house just above our future (hopefully) residence and is at least part of the reason construction is still stalled. She is the one behind all the complaints to the town, backed by another neighbour who is known to object to everything. The crazy-eyes in question has a swimming pool and is trying to pass off cracks in the foundation to the work on our building (she should check her own cracks if you ask me). Apparently they had an expert come to her place to assess the situation, and he confirmed that the cracks in her pool predated any work on our property; however, she is persisting in her ‘démarche’ to try and get more money from the developers (not the first time she’s done this).

Now the architects have submitted new plans (lowering the roof angle to correct the 72 cm error in the building height) and have a meeting with the authorities at the end of the month. After that we should know whether the project will be stalled for further inquiries (which could go on for some time) or whether it will be able to start up again and hopefully meet the new date for next May. If not, we have the option to bail and get our money back, which we’re not keen to do given how much time we’ve invested so far and how much we want to live there. But if means years of delay, we will cut our losses. I have no doubt that we will find something else.

Preferably without a folle-dingue as a neighbour.

Do you have any nutbars in your life?