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?

Up in the air

Disclaimer: Not me.

I have been horribly remiss in posting here. No real excuse, other than the fact that I’ve felt sort of…en suspens, hanging, or up in the air. I don’t know about you but I need to feel grounded, to know where I stand in my life, in order to get things done.

One of the reasons I’ve been feeling that way is our future home. It’s a new build, and we’ve been waiting for a confirmation on the delivery date. Initially it was supposed to be sometime this fall, end of the year at the latest. But that’s delayed now, unsurprisingly given everything that’s been going on. Supply shortages of building materials are one of the the consequences of the war in Ukraine (some of which were already happening with Covid, and the energy crisis hasn’t helped). But in addition to that, there have been difficulties with the project itself.

Last week we learned that one of our future neighbours had filed a complaint. I’m not sure why, as their view will not be at all impacted. But it seems this is a very Swiss thing to do and almost to be expected. It ended up costing a few weeks while work was halted to investigate. The building was found to be set 72 cm too high on the terrain compared to the initial building permit. Additionally, there have been complications due to fact that the site is built into a steep slope, with extra reinforcements needed on the retaining wall behind it.

Long story short: our move-in date is now not until the end of May 2023. Which sounds like a long time but at least we will be able to make plans. And I will be able to post about our new place now knowing that it’s really happening (because until now it felt like a dream).

Another reason I’ve been feeling up in the air is that we’ve been planning a big trip in November and haven’t known whether or where travel would be a possibility. But now that Biden has said the pandemic is over (I mean if a US president says something, it must be true, right? 😉) we’re making plans.

The timing has to do with my husband’s work as he is entitled to a sabbatical month but it has to be taken this year. He is a Japanophile (is that a word?), has been there twice, and is learning Japanese. So while we considered different destinations, I knew in my heart that if Japan ever opened its borders, that would be where we were going. Now it’s looking like that is likely, and we have taken the bold step of booking flights. We should find out this week if the rules will be loosened enough to create our own trip or have to use a tour company. I am not a huge fan of international travel but I’m starting to get excited. So far we’re planning on Tokyo, Kyoto, Okayama, Hiroshima and Okinawa. Fingers crossed!

I took the above photos on Sunday, a beautiful late-summer, early-fall day. My favourite kind. When the air, suddenly several degrees cooler, makes you want to wear a jacket but the sun is still warm enough to make you peel it off. It was a clear day and I watched the paragliders circle down from the mountain above. It is incredibly relaxing to watch them. Feeling perfectly grounded from the safety of terra firma.

What’s up with you? Am I the only one who’s not been good at blogging lately? News, please!