We are halfway through our buffet party … You may still need your chopsticks! Ahead: a few dishes more, plus drinks, sweets and music.
According to the Lonely Planet Guide, there are six million vending machines in Tokyo – which makes it one machine for every two people. I counted five on the way from Kashiwa-noha Campus station to our Lodge – and there was one in the Lodge as well. No wonder Japan needs fifty-four nuclear reactors. I am sure half of them exist solely to support my green-tea drinking habit.
And not only green tea. They have jasmine tea as well. And rice-roasted tea. And Pocari Sweat ‘ion supply’ drink. And cappuccino. And black coffee. And corn soup. And all of these are HOT!
The abundance of vending machines in Tokyo has additional advantages, too. If a chikan follows you, why not try to avoid detection by pretending to be one? Aya Tsukioka, a Japanese fashion designer, invented an anti-rape dress that helps you melt into the city landscape. You just have to remember to stand still: I have seen a bowing seal in Japan, but a bowing vending machine would be politeness stretched too much even by Japanese standards!
Not so easy to understand. And there is a lot to recycle, too (every time I was unpacking my shopping, the opening line from Twin Peaks was shooting through my head ‘She’s dead. Wrapped in plastic’). PET bottles, combustibles, non-combustibles, plastic wrappings, wrappings made from single material, composite materials … A great weight loss programme: faced with washing and dismantling the tin, you may feel like skipping your snack.
Japanese Sweets Factory
Eating Japanese sweets should not be the same as the premenstrual stuffing of one’s face with Snickers and hiding the wrapping under the car seat. It is a part of the tea ceremony ritual, where the bitterness of powdered green tea is complemented by azuki bean paste sweetness.
Tea drinking has three aspects: medicinal, spiritual and entertaining. Jou-namagashi sweets are served during tea ceremonies: their colour, name and shape have to correspond with the occasion and the season. Azuki beans used in their production are extremely popular and abundant in Asia, and said to lower blood cholesterol level. You can get them in ice-creams, buns, donuts, soups: there is even azuki flavoured Pepsi. To make Jou-namagashi you use Nerikiri – a mixture of white bean paste (Shiroan), sugar and rice.
We are amateurs, but – under the guidance of Mr Takano, the sweet making chef – we managed to produce snow camellia (Yukitsubaki), chrysanthemum (Kiku), nightingale (Uguisu) and plum blossom. We were showed how to use kaishi paper and a cloth, through which you squeeze your dough to give it a right shape. It is not as easy as it looks, and while my nightingale resembled a crocodile, too long to fit the box, my husband ended up with a happy looking frog.
Mr Tanaka showing us how to squeeze dough
Itsukushima Shrine (Miyajima Island)
In bright orange and red colours, this is one of the most beautiful Shinto shrines in Japan. When the tide comes in, the temple seems to be floating on water. The island, considered sacred, has not always been as accessible as it is now. These days you can take a boat and stroll amongst the very friendly deer that wander around the area. I did not know it while visiting, but I have since read that burials, deaths and births are still not allowed on the island, as the purity of the shrine is of the utmost importance.
Funky Monkey Babys
What do you mean you have never heard of Funky Katō, Mon-kichi and DJ Chemical? Everyone knows them. If you do not believe me, just mention their names in Japan or Korea … then wait for the reaction.
I saw these for the first time in Nikko. There may be a hundred of them (hence the name, Hyaku-Jizōs) – but again, there may not be. Some of those sitting on the Bake Jizo Trail disappeared in the flood more than a hundred years ago. Plus, according to legend, they are impossible to count and will play tricks on all who try to do so. We made an attempt – but it was hard to see them clearly, and sometimes only their red hats and bibs helped us notice the smaller ones under the thick layer of snow.
Jizōs are protectors of travellers (also in their spiritual ventures), pregnant women and children – often those who have been miscarried, stillborn or aborted. They can be also seen at cross-roads. I came across a small army of them in Kamakura: they were surrounded by flowers and incense sticks, and parents’ offerings of toys and sweets.
Japanese bathrooms made me realize I have lived my entire life like an animal in a burrow. Not only the toilets are more technologically advanced than my laptop, but they also talk (and, sometimes, play music). The bathtub spoke to me, too. According to my Japanese friends it says ‘I will be ready in ten minutes … now I am ready, you can come in!’ The bathroom may be small and (especially in hotels) carved from one piece of plastic (I told you! Wrapped in plastic!), but you can set the water’s temperature and play with various buttons. Then you can call someone through the in-built intercom to bring you a glass of wine, and sit in the bath for hours reheating the water when it gets cold.
Toilet in McDonald's, Shibuya
The Great Buddha of Kamakura (Daibutsu)
Daibutsu used to sit in a great hall, which was destroyed by the tsunami of 1498. What a view it must have been! The wild, foamy water destroying everything in its way, and the Amida Bhudda quiet amidst the waves, with his eyes partly closed, maybe only glimpsing through – in the words of impressed Rudyard Kipling – ‘drowsy eyelids’. Can you imagine that?
The sea in Kamakura
How to Queue?
Japanese have been dubbed ‘the Germans of Asia’ for a reason: everyone visiting notices that this is a country where Ordnung muss sein. Kids are shown ‘How to Properly Queue’ videos and are taught how exactly one should behave in a shop. Of course, the ‘nail that sticks out gets hammered’ approach has a long history. In his infamous remark (for which he had apologized since), the governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara claimed that the earthquake was a divine punishment for the rise of individualism in Japan and the tsunami waves were much needed to ‘wipe out egoism’. But his lament about the Japanese (especially young ones) being selfish, was not only distasteful, but also completely unfounded. It was this very cooperative and collectivistic behaviour that impressed the world in the aftermath of 11th of March. I was much surprised how people in the supermarket – which was opened for a couple of hours only – kept their calm. There was no panic, no fighting over the limited water bottles and no stealing from each other’s trolleys. As people were moving quietly among the empty shelves, they were bowing politely to each other. And although this inward-emotion expression may have side-effects (Japan has the fifth highest suicide rate in the world), in this particular situation it proved to be an effective method in handling the crisis.
Buddhism plays a big part in this, with its idea of interconnectedness and the temporary nature of things (very relevant when you live on uncertain ground). At the end, this unification made Japan one of the world’s most unique and original cultures.
The way people actually experience temperature is culturally specific. As anthropologists claim, being protected from the elements is only of second importance to adornment. But looking at Japanese school-girls walking in the snowy Tokyo with bare legs and impossibly short skirts made my ovaries squirm. A lot has been said about the Japanese school-girl icon, and much Japanese fashion seems to be inspired by the school uniform. But how do they manage in this cold? Not that they have much choice – they are allowed only knee-high socks, and a little jacket. Adjustment is of supreme importance, but it seems they may have something else up their (very thin) sleeves.
Heattech is a Japanese invented heat-generating material. As soon I found out about it, I ran to the Uniqlo shop and bought myself two tops, socks and a waist-warmer. Not only do they keep the warmth, but they also produce it, so what looks like a thin top can actually replace your old woolly jumper.
(If this does not help, there is a more spiritual way to fight the cold, known in Tibetan Buddhism as ‘tumo’. If you are a practicing yogi, you can learn to defy freezing temperatures by creating your internal heat, sufficient to dry wet sheets. Then you can meditate naked in the snow. But before I achieve this state of balance, I am afraid I will retreat to my Heattech.)
We were running from the radiation so fast, that we only stopped in Seoul. Hosted by our very hospitable friend and her lovely mum we could reflect upon our travel choices, and make up our minds on what should we do next. In the meantime, we discovered why the Koreans are called ‘the Italians of Asia’ – all this laughter, noise and kissing couples on the Seoul underground! We also drank fermented green tea. Although we did not manage to visit the Kimchi Museum (that is how much the Koreans love their kimchi!) we certainly tried some. It is a popular side dish, usually made from fermented vegetables, and spicy. The food in Seoul was great: jellyfish, octopus, rice dumplings … But dining with the dog has a very different meaning than in Japan: however, despite seeing an odd ‘we serve special meats’ sign I cannot tell you much about it.
Starving at the Banquet – North Korea
DMZ – the Korean Demilitarized Zone – is an hour’s drive from Seoul. Our hosts took us there by car. On the way, through the barbed wired fence, we could see the river Han dividing South from North.
It is worth noting that some parts of the Goseong-Gun, Gangwon Do Odusan Unification Observatory were available to foreigners only. We did not have our passports with us, but as we looked unmistakable non-Asian, no one asked to see them. Somehow, our South Korean friends were let in with us too.
The most interesting part was the outside terrace with the lookout to the North. It was like peering into a different world immersed in a glass ball. All our travel dilemmas suddenly seemed irrelevant, and our troubles luxuries. There, through the binoculars, we were looking at a dictator’s monument among the shells of propaganda houses and people travelling on bikes. Small groups were walking up a hill. So close, yet so impossibly far. My heart went out to these people. Despite the heavy veil of North Korean propaganda and the information embargo, every month there is news about people dying from hunger and suffering in the concentration camps such as Yodŏk and Camp 22 (where, allegedly, gas chambers are used). Many people are imprisoned as ‘guilty by association’ if one of their relatives is detained (Amnesty International, May 2011). In 2008 a documentary by the Polish film producer Andrzej Fidyk portrayed the stories of those who managed to get out (‘Yodok Stories’, 2008).
Amnesty International reports on the breach of human rights in North Korea
1000¥ 10-minutes Hairdresser
– Pay at the machine and collect your ticket
– Wait in a queue of salary-men
– A hairdresser sets the timer
– 10 minutes later leave with your new haircut (don’t forget to bow!)
– Next please!
Is this REALLY the best way to sell trousers?