Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Aside #12: Most Memorable Moments in Japan

An aside .....

Japanese Bento cooking and Japan, yes ....
From looking at a series of blog entries, it's easy to notice that I'm trying to adopt a Japanese, Bento, smaller portions, health-conscious friendly style of cooking and eating.  Heavy on the vegetables, protein and lighter on carbs.  A serving of fresh fruit as well and less grapes of wine (ahem...)

Every time I browse some of the websites, or open up the Let's Bento cookbook, or eat a Bento Box with chopsticks, my memories of Japan return fondly to the years 1997 to 2000ish.  It was in those years that I had the opportunity to travel to Japan a few times (Kyoto, Tokyo, and a small town in the mountains) where I had the time of my life, both professionally and personally.  As well, it was the first time travelling overseas!  

Traveller, not....
First, somewhat of a personal note (not too personal though).  I'm not much of a world traveller.  Some days I am embarrassed that I haven't travelled more widely than I have.  Bottom line is that I am perfectly happy in my own surroundings, don't like planes at all, have gotten better with them over the years but, honestly, prefer to stay mostly home.

In fact, anxiety attacks plagued me in my 20s when I first started travelling. Flying was the worst.  I set forth on my own to do a Vancouver-Ottawa plane-train-bus trek across the country.  Time-honoured youth hostel style.  But, on the flight from Toronto to Vancouver, I had a major anxiety attack and demanded that the pilot put the plane down immediately (and the fact that the plane was over the Rockies didn't deter me AT ALL).  On the same tour, I demanded to be let off the train headed for Calgary (again in the Rockies). Once in Calgary, I tried to do Banff by bus... same reaction.  So, I gave up and flew home. But I kept trying for the next few years.  I made it to Mexico City for a UN meeting on population growth but had a major anxiety attack one evening and left the next morning on the first plane home.  I did the same thing at a UN Women's Conference in Chicago.  Sadly, I've even cut holidays short.  

But, as I aged, found good anti-anxiety travel drugs, and became fitness buff-y, the anxiety faded to a manageable level.  I was able to travel on planes, trains and, yes, automobiles (!) for work purposes.  I managed a whistle-stop tour of 27 cities handling communications at Public Hearings for a Royal Commission and for various Advisory Council media tours when there were major research launches.  Fed-prov meetings were manageable. I gradually forgot about my earlier issues with anxiety. 

Kyoto and Tokyo, BIG GrEAT travel...
But domestic travel is one thing.  I've never been keen on across-the-ocean type travel.  Continental tours of Britain, Europe and elsewhere were never high on my 'must-do' or even 'might-do' lists... plane, train, cruise ship or whatever... something about confined spaces or out of my comfort zone or whatever. 

But, in 1997, a work opportunity arose to go to Kyoto, Japan, for an international conference on climate change.  Kyoto Protocol, perchance... 12-16 hours of travel each way were involved but I simply could not say NO.  In fact, I travelled to Japan twice over a two-year period and once to Buenos Aires in Argentina.  All occurred without drugs or having to admit my anxiety-prone youth experiences.  All I need on a plane is distraction.  I don't sleep.  I sip nervously during turbulence... water in my alcohol-less days; scotch if not. A laptop or TV also works like a charm to keep me calm.  

But Japan was worth fighting against myself and my travel-related hesitancies.  There are priceless moments and memories and I will relate the top four. 

Most Memorable Moments:  #1
The hotel in Kyoto was very modern, American influence but with Japanese decor and touches, like a hot pot for tea rather than a coffee maker in the hotel room.  But what really stumped me was the bathroom.  I mistook the toilet for the shower.  I kid you not.  I have the picture to prove it.  The buttons were next to the toilet and walk-in shower and were clearly labelled in both English and Japanese. I wanted a shower so I pushed the button for 'Shower' and was promptly sprayed from head to toe with, ah yes indeed, toilet water.  Lesson #1:  Do Research on Bathroom Culture BEFORE Travelling Overseas. 

Most Memorable Moments:  #2

Recovering from the 'Shower' follies, I went downstairs to the lobby to meet some of the delegation and set out for dinner somewhere close to the hotel.  I'm relatively short but still taller than most Japanese folks.  My dinner companions were all in the 6 foot plus range, tall and lean.  We went up and down very narrow streets filled with very tiny restaurants and sushi bars.  We must have looked like a band of alien giants to the owners; some of whom waved us away and asked us not to come in.  But finally, success.  As we were shown to a table, we set off a huge wave of shouting with waiters rushing toward us, not happy at all, shouting a version of 'hey, stop'.  It turned out we hadn't removed our shoes! Then, the table was very near the floor with mats to sit on.  Fine for height-challenged me but not so easy for 6 foot plus types.  But the real trouble started with the ordering.  "No sushi, I kept saying", waving my hands about.  Whatever I was doing was interpreted as "yes, sushi".  I kept frantically trying to look up the word for 'vegetables' in my little dictionary; in the end, I made do with rice.  It was a lean week for me.  Raw sushi and I have never been the best of friends.  Lesson #2:  Always Learn a Few Basic Words. 

Most Memorable Moments:  #3  
I loved the bicycles (called 'jitensha' or 'chari') I saw everywhere in Kyoto.  Loved them.  Everyone had one, everyone seemed to ride them, from CEO types in business suits with briefcases to mothers with kids out shopping.  The best memory was of a Buddhist monk holding an umbrella as he rode along.  No lycra, no flashy weird jerseys. Just clothes.  There were plenty of 'mamacharis' as well, designed with a sturdy basket for a child on the front handlebars.  (There's some controversy now about two children on a bike with two baskets.)

Anyway, there were fabulous bike parkades near shopping districts.  Most bikes weren't locked.  Folks in Kyoto rode in waves along the canal bike paths, but slowly and sedately, without helmets, and not like the speed demons we have here.  Bikes were practical, not flashy, and generally just a few speeds (I've NEVER mastered the art of changing gears).  I couldn't help comparing the culture of biking as a form of transportation there to Ottawa and our less-than-friendly infrastructure.  

I almost took more pictures of bikes than I did of any touristy sites. You see, in those days you didn't see an upright style bike in Canada, at least not in my world.  Everyone either rode hunched over, which I find most uncomfortable, or kindof a little bit upright.  But these bikes were my size, my style, practical, and NOT expensive.  I inquired about taking one back to Canada with me but, alas, not.  I vowed to find the equivalent version back in Ottawa.  HA!! Dream on.  Husband and I looked and looked.  It took us a few years to finally find a bike somewhat like it, referred to as 'women's' style (a putdown for sure). It's impossibly heavy and a bit big for me but I do ride upright.  I will never ride any other way!  Lesson #3:  Find a Way to Bring it Back Next Time!

Most Memorable Moments: #4
The shopping.  Sigh, the shopping.  In both Kyoto and Tokyo, I did my absolute best to help contribute the maximum amount possible in the shortest period of time to the national and local economies.  I was successful to a point; I could have spent more if I had more than two hands and two feet.  I have this 'thing' for interesting plates and bowls and dragged back as many as I could.  I still have them all.  I did ALL my Christmas shopping ... kimonos for my mother and sister, sushi bowls. I even bought sweets from a market in Tokyo. (Note to self and others:  sweets in Japan are not sweet.... packaging is best part)

But of course I made one fatal mistake.  I had to get everything home.  I didn't want to pack my purchases in my luggage as they were 95% breakable.  I was blase about it carrying it all.  I rationalized this stupid decision (in hindsight very stupid) to myself by saying that the Canadian embassy staff were driving us (through traffic jams you NEVER see in Canada) and would drop us at the airport. 

Well, the embassy personnel did indeed drive us to the airport and then ushered us through the maze inside the Tokyo airport to the VIP section and from there to the homebound plane.  EXCEPT the walk to get there was endless. We walked .... fast ... for ages in crowds ... also walking fast ... the likes of which I've never seen before or again.  I was in good shape but 10 minutes into the marathon I was panting and sweating and falling far behind my colleagues.  My arms were dead.  We finally made it, and in time, and for once in my life, I was delighted to get on a plane! Lesson #4:  Shop and SHIP it Home!

Final Aside:

Were the visits to Japan worth it? Absolutely yes and yes.  To this day, I can still remember the expression on my mother's face as she opened the kimono Christmas present. She never travelled outside Canada, indeed barely outside southwestern Ontario.  A kimono from Japan was beyond her wildest comprehension.  Sadly, she was afraid to wear it.  Years later, after she died, I found it, original wrapping intact, tucked safely away in her drawer.  I have it to this day as a memory of both Japan and my mother. 

1 comment:

  1. Just love this post - still have the plate you brought me and the sake bottle and cups. I can just see your mom carefully putting the kimono away....