Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas in Japan

Christmas in Japan seems to be mostly about light displays and shopping.

The department stores were packed with people during the last few days before Christmas, and on Christmas Eve people were lined up to buy baked chicken and Christmas cake. On our street, there was an inflated Santa that rose out of a chimney and then sank back down, over and over. Christmas music was everywhere.
The Japanese tradition is to celebrate Christmas Eve by eating chicken and Christmas cake. In addition, many Japanese couples go to a fancy hotel for the night. But Christmas morning everyone gets up and goes to work just like any other day. The Christmas decorations and music are all gone, replaced by New Year’s decorations and music.
Christmas Day was strange for me. I spent the day at the local ward office and at the immigration office, completing paperwork for a work visa, since I have just accepted a job in Japan. I was so busy during the day that I barely realized it was Christmas, but during the evening I realized that Christmas actually is a pretty important holiday for me, and it feels pretty strange to be in a culture where it isn’t really celebrated.

Itsumi and I had our own celebration just before Christmas. We took a trip to Yudanaka, where Japan’s famous snow monkeys live. The snow monkeys are Japanese macaques, and they live farther north than other monkeys in the world. The particular macaques that we visited love to soak in the natural hot springs near Yudanaka, where they are photographed by tourist paparazzi. We particularly liked the babies, and also one very old macaque who looked barely alive, but who seemed to enjoy the healthful aspects of the spa.

After hiking up the mountain to see the snow monkeys, we checked into our ryokan, or traditional Japanese lodging. Itsumi had made a reservation, getting a great deal through an internet sale site. When we arrived, the hotel clerk told us that she was so sorry that there had been a plumbing problem and our room wasn’t available. Instead, they would move us into another section of the hotel. This other section turned out to be a very expensive, beautiful and traditional section, and we had an entire suite to ourselves but still for the low price!

The rooms all had beautiful tatami mat floors and sliding wooden and paper doors. Because all of the doors slid, we could change the shape of the rooms by adjusting them. The rooms were traditionally furnished with low tables, and we had a beautiful view of the mountains. Because this was a traditional ryokan, there were no beds, but there was a closet full of futon mattresses and blankets.
Traditionally, Japanese use a bottom sheet but no top sheet. Instead, the blanket is encased in sheet material which can be removed and washed.
Our ryokan had many different onsens, or hot spring baths, some outdoors and some inside. There were different sections for the men and for the women, and everybody switched twice a day. Our room included thirty minutes in a private bath, which was large enough for an entire party! This is the private bath. I couldn't take the picture of the much more beautiful public baths, because naked people were soaking in them! Below are the showers in the private bath.

Our room also included meals, and we had an amazing fourteen-course dinner which I can’t even begin to describe. The waitress brought us dish after dish, and everything was delicious and presented so beautifully! I neglected to bring my camera to dinner, but I did take pictures of breakfast in the morning, which was also amazing!
breakfast at the Ryokan

Ryokans with hot springs provide traditional robes and jackets which guests can wear in the dining room and everywhere in the hotel, and even in the village if it's warm enough. We returned to Tokyo on Christmas Eve night, so I got to feel like I definitely had a celebration even though it wasn’t the usual Christmas celebration!
Itsumi and me at breakfast, in the ryokan's robes

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Kimonos in Kyoto, Japanese hot springs

I spent a morning walking through the Higashiyama section of Kyoto, where the traditional wooden buildings still stand. Because the U.S. government considered Kyoto as a potential target for the A-bomb, we didn't drop traditional bombs there. Seeing the beauty of Kyoto today gives me a greater appreciation for what was lost when Hiroshima was flattened.
I am enjoying discovering the austere ascetic of Japan - the simple wooden buildings with sliding doors and paper windows, the carefully designed entryways, and the beautiful, beautiful gardens and ponds. Everything is simple and beautiful, not crowded with ornamentation.

I sat in Maruyama park, in the sun before a beautiful duck pond fed by a small waterfall. The red and orange fall leaves were reflected on the water's surface. Maple leaves are smaller in Japan, and brilliant! People walked by, teens in stylish clothes, elderly people, women of all ages in kimonos.

Taiwanese tourists dressed as Japanese. I asked, in Japanese, if I could take their picture and they answered in English. (they didn't speak Japanese).

A couple getting wedding photos taken in Kyoto

And American man was busking on a nearby park bench. He and his wife came to Japan twenty years ago to look for work teaching English, but he ended up busking instead, and he has been able to make a living that way for many years! As we chatted, a Japanese man dropped 1,000 yen, more than US $10, in the busker's guitar case and requested "Country Roads." Too bad I can't play an instrument!

I visited my first onsen, or Japanese hot spring. It was right in the middle of Kyoto, in a wood and stone building with a reed-covered floor. As in most Japanese establishments, guests leave their shoes at the door. Japanese onsens have one section for women, and another for men. The lockers are free, and bathers leave everything in thelockers except for soap and shampoo and sometimes a wash cloth, necessary for the thorough showering that everyone does before getting into the baths. (Japanese people are so clean, it leaves me wondering whether they think that we are pigs! Itsumi assures me that they don't).

cold water pool

The shower heads are at waist level, and one showers while squatting or sitting on a small plastic stool, using the showerhead and a bucket. It's important to complete this step well, as foreigners apparently have a reputation for soaking without a thorough cleaning! Bathing suits are prohibited, and everyone bathe naked. Apparently some foreigners, feeling modest, have tried to soak while wrapped in towels. There is a sign asking people not to do this! Nudity is required! (Itsumi adds that this is because Japanese people are obsessed with cleanliness, not with seeing each other naked!)

The onsen I visited had several baths, some indoors and some outdoors. My favorite were the two outdoor pools, built of stone, one with hot water and the other cold, for those of us who like to alternate. For me, this is heaven!

Since the Kyoto onsen, Itsumi and I stayed in a hotel in Osaka that had a beautiful onsen on the top floor, with an outdoor pool on the rooftop! And we've also discovered a wonderful public bath, or sento, near Itsumi's apartment. The sento has many pools with massage jets, placed perfectly for massaging feet, shoulders, etc., and also a pool with electrical current running through it. This one is a little much for me, but maybe I'll work up to it!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bullet train, Hiroshima, Miyajima

I spent a week traveling in Japan, using my Japan Rail Pass and traveling on the bullet trains, which travel at up to 186 mph!

As a kid I loved reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and I remember that Laura, accustomed to wagon travel, rode on a train for the first time in the 1880s. Although that train must have gone very slowly by today's standards, she wrote that the speed was so fast that she could not take in her surroundings as she sped by. I felt that way on the bullet train!
And imagine how nice it would be to have a bullet train going up and down the front range of Colorado, along I-25.

I visited Hiroshima, where the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb in 1945. The entire city was demolished within seconds or minutes, and somewhere near 200,000 people died. Some of the radiation victims are still living. Many others died of leukemia or other cancers.

Today, under the epicenter of the A-bomb there is a peace memorial museum, and memorials to the children who died and to the Korean and Chinese forced laborers who died there, and there is a flame that will burn until the last nuclear weapon is eliminated from the world. The U.S. is one of the countries that continues to have nuclear weapons, and it seems that there is no end in sight.

I rented a bicycle, a very pleasant way to see Hiroshima, and stayed at a really cute hostel in a room with three young Japanese-American women who were traveling together. One of the women is working on a Japanese farm, under a trainee visa which means that she is supposed to be in Japan in order to learn Japanese farming techniques. Instead, she has been made to work from 2 a.m. until 8 p.m. six days per week for only U.S. $700 per month (worth less in Japan than in the U.S.) and she is doing hard labor, not receiving any training. Most of the other workers are from Indonesia and the Philippines, and are treated worse.

The farm confiscates their passports and holds all of their pay, refusing to even let them send money home to their families. When the young Japanese-American woman questioned these condition,s her employer denied her access to the telephone and limited her access to food.

Eventually, the woman changed her placement to a different farm (the first farm shorted her pay) and the first farm hired a Philippina woman in her place, saying that a Philippino would be able to take the conditions (meaning that the Philippines is so poor that workers from there will not dare complain or quit). It is disheartening to see that the same schemes and techniques are used world-wide to abuse farm laborers.

Traveling alone in Japan, without Itsumi, I had to deal with restaurant menus for the first time. At many restaurants, everything was written in Japanese characters. The only thing I could read was the numbers, unless they too were written in Chinese characters as is the case sometimes! In Hiroshima I had lunch at a soba restaurant that served soba, or buckwheat noodle soup. Unable to read the menu, I asked the waitress for soba. She gestured that everything on the menu was soba. So I chose a price from the menu and pointed at it, hoping it would be something I like! The waitress brought me a delicious bowl of egg drop soba.

Outside of Hiroshima I visited Miyajima, the site of the famous "floating" torii or gate to the shrine. Miyajima is an island, which I got to by ferry, and it's populated by some very friendly deer who like to dig into the pockets of tourists!
In Miyajima I did a beautiful hike to a mountain top, among beautiful fall leaves. At the top of the mountain I took pictures of wild monkeys, and then took the cable car down.

deer pooping

cable car

I am really appreciating the fall leaves this year! My fall started in September in Minnesota, and is still going in Japan!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A strange mix of cultures

As I walked into Tokyo's Ueno Park I heard the familiar and surprising sound of Andean music. A group of four Peruvian men was playing the songs I heard so many times last year in South America. Between songs they spoke to the audience in Spanish, but suddenly I couldn't understand until I recognized the Japanese word for please, and I realized they spoke Japanese too!

Nearby, two other Peruvian men played Andean music mixed with North American Native flute music. They were dressed as North American Plains Indians. I spoke to their CD salesperson in Spanish, and he told me that they are indeed Peruvian, but that they dress as North American Indians for show! Peruvian Quechua Indians dressed as North American Indians playing a mixture of North and South American indigenous flute music and speaking in Japanese - what a surprising cultural mix!

Peruvian musician dressed as North American Indian, playing a North American flute, with Andean flutes in the background

It turned out that Spanish served me well in Ueno Park. In a museum, I spoke to two tourists from Spain. And later, after watching a young man feed part of his lunch to a stray cat, I petted the cat and greeted the man. He said something to me, and I answered in my basic Japanese "I'm sorry, I don't understand Japanese." He replied, "Hablas espanol?" It turned out that he has a Japanese father and a Peruvian mother. He has grown up in Japan, but speaks Spanish fluently as well as Japanese! It felt nice to speak to him in Spanish, and to feel good about my language abilities for a few minutes!

Peruvian/Japanese young man with a homeless cat. The cats in Ueno Park are working cats! The young man gave the kitty some food, and told me that he feeds that cat often.