Home from the East 3: Miscellaneous
(No volunteers to review “Endgame”?)
A few more miscellaneous thoughts from the returned tourist:
Bowing. Yes, people do bow, especially to their customers. I did see two elderly women, friends, bowing repeatedly to each other when saying goodbye, but on the whole the bowing didn’t look awkward or servile. You could almost look on it as an extension of our “nod of respect to someone we want to acknowledge without actually talking to because they’re on the other side of the street”.
Food (visitor food). I’ve already mentioned hotel breakfasts. One of the most joyous revelations was that Japanese food isn’t all raw fish! A restaurant “set meal” is a joy to receive and eat – a neat tray containing a bowl of miso (soy) soup, a bowl of rice, a bowl of whatever you’re having with the rice, one or two saucers of delicious pickled vegetables, a wet-wipe and chopsticks. Green tea is topped up throughout the meal. The “whatever” may vary according to the restaurant, but tempura, technically fish or vegetables in batter, is much less greasy than it sounds. Desserts are not usually part of the menu, but sweets and cakes are all over the place in cafes etc. It is true however that I was pining for bread by the time I came home.
A mention should be made of street food – squid on a stick, anyone? Or green-tea flavoured ice-cream? Most restaurants delightfully display their dishes outside in the form of very lifelike plastic models. There are also innumerable vending machines.
You are expected to use chopsticks, so you do. They usually come joined at the end, and you break them apart. (Yes, this implies they are single-use. They’re not plastic, but there’s a huge amount of single-use plastic. I bought a single postage stamp, which came in a plastic bag.)
Tea ceremony. There is green tea (and green tea flavoured sweets, ice-cream and Kit Kats) which is leaf, and there is matcha green tea, which is powdered, and tastes rather different. Matcha is used in the tea ceremony. We attended one for tourists. It sadly had to be truncated because we were late, but the graciousness of the three hostesses was unimpaired. The seventeen of us sat round a smallish room in an ordinary house in Kyoto, while the three kimono-clad ladies knelt. One of them slowly and ritually prepared the materials and made the tea, one shuffled forward to offer it round, and the third explained in English. The motto of the tea ceremony is “harmony and respect”, so in theory each person is served individually, and each person bows to and thanks the person giving them the tea and the next person who’s still waiting, and stops to examine and appreciate the cup. Tea ceremony is taught in school clubs, and since the formalities include eating a sweet cracker, children do still come. Mark and I prefer ordinary green tea to matcha, but still found this half-hour one of the highlights of the holiday. (On the way home I watched a subtitled contemporary Japanese film about the tea ceremony in a young woman’s life, “Every Day a Good Day”, reviewed here: https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/review/day-a-good-day-nichinichikorekojitsu-film-review-tokyo-2018-1154655)
Men and women and children. I can’t really answer Stephen’s question about gender politics from my own observation. Japan’s history is very sexist and violent, but so is Europe’s. Our guides were both female, both married. The guide books imply that the culture is still very much men working long hours and then going to the pub together, while the women are expected, even if working, to run the family. Possibly this is true. We watched the morning commute at a large underground station in Tokyo, and the river of solemn grey and black and silent people, six wide, was impressively unsettling, but they weren’t all men. There were also many school children on organised trips to temples etc: mostly impeccably-behaved, constantly taking group photos, and wearing the very old-fashioned and neat uniforms (sailor suits and hats).
Scenery. Japan is 70% unusable mountain, and these mountains are covered in forest. The land that is not forest is thus crammed with buildings, or surprisingly small fields. It may be different in the northern island of Hokkaido, but we saw no meadows, no acres of crops, and absolutely no livestock. The mountains have no scree or heather, goats or small villages such as one might see in Greece or Scotland. Only endless trees and occasional rivers, stunningly beautiful. Mount Fuji, which we saw from a distance on a gorgeous day, and which we’d also spotted from the plane and the train, is awesome from any view.
In the cities and towns, we were in time to see the cherry blossom – “if in doubt, plant a cherry tree” appears to be the motto. The falling blossoms were apparently cleared up overnight – Japan is not a country of either public rubbish bins or litter. One or two streets were exceptionally packed, but on the whole the cities were perhaps less crowded than London. Yes, the tourist sites were full, but what would you expect on a spring holiday? The houses however did seem built very very close together, even the ones with tiny front gardens. You could barely have walked between them. Of course there were also huge numbers of enormous skyscraper apartment blocks, especially in Tokyo.
English/American culture. The Japanese language (three intermingled alphabets, all completely different from ours) seemed and is daunting. However there are signs and names in English at railway stations, and many other places. In main shopping streets, a surprising number of international chains and hotels have their names up in English only (Louis Vuitton, say), something which I would find offensive if I were Japanese. There are innumerable examples of the American convenience store chain 7/11. And it seemed to me that there was a Starbucks on almost literally every block. (Only Starbucks, no Costa.)
These are just a few thoughts. It was a fascinating and memorable holiday.
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