Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Traditional Japan

Traditional Japan

When I was studying Japanese at the University of Auckland in the 1990s, finishing off my degree, a professor set us a difficult and time-consuming translation exercise, and then, after we had put a lot of time and effort into completing the task, made two revelations which greatly displeased me.

The piece was about what Japanese people eat for breakfast, such as rice, miso soup and hiraki, "hiraki" being a fish which has been opened up so it will lie flat, and which has then been dried.

The two revelations which displeased me were that (a) this passage was not an authentic piece of native speaker Japanese but, rather, a piece originally written in English by a Westerner and then translated into Japanese by someone else, and that (b) the Westerner who had so confidently written about Japanese breakfast habits had got it all wrong, and that the breakfast described in the passage is an old-fashioned traditional breakfast no longer eaten by the average household. Certainly they would not eat hiraki!

My thought was: so, you excremental idiot, if it's wrong then why did you give us THAT to work on?

I was in a mood of extreme intolerance by then since the Japanese language course, badly planned, poorly coordinated and inadequately resourced, had left most of the students in a mutinous mood, particularly after the occasion on which another of our professors had, not for the first time, called in sick, and, by way of replacement, had sent his young non-Japanese-speaking daughter to front up to the lecture theater.

Having graduated from university, I arrived in Japan with very little in the way of a practical ability to read, write, speak or listen to Japanese. But, having spent the better part of a decade in Japan, I have in some measure remedied this situation.

I have also learnt quite a bit about the realities of life in today's Japan, one of which is that what the busy Japanese citizen eats for breakfast is, in all too many cases, a null set.

When I was teaching corporate English and was doing a lot of face-to-face testing, a standard question was "What do you eat for breakfast?", and a frequent answer was "Nothing, I'm too busy."

However, when I sat down to breakfast on Saturday 13 January, the breakfast was not the trendy up-to-the-moment null set but was, rather, about as traditional as Japan gets, complete with the rice, the extremely salty (and, hence, extremely unhealthy) miso soup, and, yes, the hiraki, splayed out and looking like a flounder (ie like a flatfish, though I don't think that's what it is.)

This breakfast was delivered to us in our quarters in the Palace Hotel in the seaside spa resort of Ito, a little less than three hours by train from where we live in Yokohama.

The woman who served the meal was wearing some kind of vaguely kimono-like garment, and the table on which she laid out the meal was sitting on traditional tatami mats, hard-wearing rush mats which are green when new but, with age, take on a mellow golden hue.

We went to Ito for a two-night three-day break to celebrate my wife's birthday, and my wife had chosen the Palace Hotel because it was right beside a park which featured swings and a slide and the like, a park where our daughter Cornucopia played on arrival on the Saturday and before our departure on the Monday.

Ito, off season, reminded me of our long-ago visit to New Zealand's Queenstown in the fall, when we had all the shops and restaurants pretty much to ourselves, the ski season which crowds the town having not yet started.

Ito was a bit like that when we explored on Saturday, the shops all open but nobody shopping.

My basic thesis about travel in Japan is that if you've seen one piece you've seen it all, because it replicates itself, a random chunk of Nagasaki, a thousand kilometers or so to the south, not that much different from a random chunk of Tokyo.

But Ito was a little different, more ornamental than the utilitarian streets that I am used to. Quasi-divine figures were posted in the street with founts of geothermal water bubbling up at their feet, with ladles set ready for use, ladles which you could use to pour water over the heads of these effigies for good luck. Cornucopia enjoyed this a lot.

Just after we set out from the hotel to explore the town, a loudspeaker system kicked into life, warning us all that a big earthquake had occurred in Hokkaido, and a tsunami was on the way. But Hokkaido is hours away by tsunami, so we wandered down to the harbor. Which was very much a working harbor.

Lots of water in Japan, but no sailboats, because boating is not part of the culture. It exists, but it is seen as a rich man's sport. A middle-ranking business executive, one of my corporate English students, told me in confidence once that he had a quarter share in a yacht. Split four ways, it was entirely affordable, but he wanted me to keep it a secret, because he would not feel easy if his coworkers knew that he indulged in this rich man's sport.

If New Zealand invaded Japan, there would soon be sail boats all over the place. But, as it is, I see endless amounts of water -- rivers, bays, harbors -- which is clearly okay for boats to navigate, because there are working boats anchored in it, but which generally goes unused.

Knowing that the tsunami was on the way, we took the opportunity to participate in a very traditional Japanese rite: shopping for brand-name goods.

I needed a new wallet so was keen to enter a leather goods shop that we happened upon. And, as chance would have it, my wife declared that she, too, was in need of a replacement wallet. So, not having organized much in the way of a present, I invited her to choose anything she wanted in the shop.

We ended up with one wallet each, hers soft and pink and made in Japan, and mine, of hard black leather, made in Italy.

The two, of about equal price, cost me a total of just under 20,000, which, assuming one New Zealand dollar is 80 yen, and that one American dollar is 114 yen, would make about NZ $250 or US $175.

I thought this not unreasonable for good-quality brand name goods because when I was shopping for a wallet in Auckland, New Zealand, the Louis Vuitton shop on Queen Street quoted me, from memory, over NZ $500 for just one wallet.

In the shop I showed the salesman my counterfeit Fendi wallet, the one I bought in Bangkok back in 1989. They told me it was an "original," which I didn't believe for a moment, but it was some years before I realized what it was a knock-off of, because I had no idea that the ornamental F on the wallet was the logo of the fashion house Fendi. I happened upon the Fendi logo, some years down the track, when I was browsing idly thought a fashion magazine in a dentist's waiting room.

The wallet I bought smelt very nicely of leather and came complete with what I take to be a classy Italian brand name, though I've never heard of the name before, the name being, if I decipher the letters cut into the leather correctly, Roberta di Camerino. I've squinted at it very hard, making use of both my close-up reading glasses and a large magnifying glass, but still can't pull the tiny letters into sharp focus.

A brand-new Italian wallet from an elite Italian fashion house, then (I'm naively assuming that all Italian fashion houses fall into the "elite" category). But that's not why I bought it.

Why I bought it because here, at last, was a wallet with the feature which I had sought but had failed to find in any shop in Auckland. It was the feature I most valued in my on-its-last-legs Fendi counterfeit: a pocket closed with a press stud.

I showed the salesman what I had and explained that I wanted something with exactly the same kind of pocket. If I followed his Japanese correctly, he said such a feature was exceedingly uncommon, but, fortunately, he had two wallets in his shop that might suit me.

One was in soft leather, the other in hard. After I experimentally crammed my wodge of cards into the pocket in the hard wallet, he recommended, emphatically, that I must go for the hard wallet, not the soft, because the soft wallet would never stand up to the punishment which I planned to inflict upon it.

I don't carry around all my cards. My four bank cards (one credit card and three ATM cards) live at home, as do assorted cards for electronic shops and other retail outlets. The cards that I do routinely carry around are as follows:

1. a card which bears the MasterCard logo but which is actually a debit card, transferring money from one of my wife's bank accounts directly to the till, and giving us an automatic discount on the transaction (a discount, I think, of three percent). It's only usable at a limited number of outfits, these including the Tokyu supermarket at the local train station and branches of the Seijo Ishi foreign food store (which is where we buy our English-made muesli).

2. A library card for the Yokohama library system, in my name, KUKKU HYUU.

3. A similar card for my daughter, who is entitled to her own card even though she is not yet three, this one in the name of NISHIKAWA AIKOCORNUCOPIABOADICEA, who, these days, I usually shorthand as "Corny," somewhat to my wife's displeasure.

4. A business card for a New Zealand-based eye surgeon, Dr Nick Mantell, which I don't think I will be needing any longer, so will remove from the wallet.

5. A New Zealand shop selling Telecom products. Ditto: no need for this now. (I've been back in Japan for months and months now, but this is the first time I've found a moment to sit down and trim out surplus cards from my wallet.)

6. Yet another no-longer-necessary card, this one for Ward 64 at Auckland Hospital, where I was treated for chemotherapy back in 2005. A long, long time ago, or so it seems now.

7. A card for the Meguro library system.

8. A point card (as it's called in Japan, though perhaps you say "loyalty card") for the menswear shop Aoki.

9. A card for Devonport library, which I won't throw away, but which I don't think I need to carry around with me now.

10. My Japanese driver's license, which expired months ago, and which I can't renew because my eyesight is trashed. That one comes out. A souvenir of a past existence.

11. A card to use to pay for buses.

12. A card for the local ophthalmologist, which I will put with the cards that I have in the envelope for the stuff which holds material relating to Meijin Hospital. (The other two cards in the envelope are a hospital ID card and a Japanese national health insurance card.)

13. A Suica card for travel on Japan Rail trains.

14. The alien registration card which, as a foreigner resident in Japan, I have a legal obligation to carry around with me. It says who I am, where I work, where I live, where I was born, when I was born, and that I first entered Japan on the 5th of May back in the year 1997.

15. A community services card, valid only in New Zealand, which has expired, and which now has only souvenir value, and so will exit my wallet.

16. A Passnet card for the subway systems in Tokyo and Yokohama.

17. An NTT telephone card.

18. A second NTT telephone card, in case the first one gets lonely by itself.

19. My commute card, paid for my the organization that I work for, valid for travel between the station where I live and the station where I work.

And that's it, folks.

When I throw out the ones I don't think I'll need to carry around any longer, I'm left with just twelve cards, which fit into my new wallet with plenty of room to spare.

My new wallet lacks one feature of the Fendi forgery which has served me so well for so many years, this being a little strap with another press stud to hold the whole wallet tightly shut, but I don't think I'll be carrying around enough currency notes to force my new wallet to spring open.

To continue with our tsunami story, we got back to the hotel alive. In the evening, as we ate dinner, the TV screen was showing a map of Japan with the tsunami danger area flashing on and off continuously. The tsunami, however, had already struck by that time, impacting on the islands offshore from Tokyo with a wave about twenty centimeters in height, a tsunami big enough to cause ants to drown and cockroaches to go scampering for higher ground.

Our hotel was okay, although the water pipes did occasionally kick in with a prolonged and annoying roar. Not often, but if it happens at 0530, which it did, even once is once too often, thank you very much.

On the Sunday, we took a bus 40 minutes to an amusement park, the Izu Guranporu Park, pretty cheap to enter and with rides starting from a hundred yen.

The first thing my daughter saw was a huge motorized dog, which she wanted to ride on, and did, with great confidence, though she could not go on some rides because she did not meet the height requirement.

The park would be ideal for five year olds, though I don't think it would interest adolescents.

The most expensive thing was a place which charged 300 yen for ten minutes so you could go inside and play with some kind of machines which threw balls around the place using compressed air. This struck me as a bit overpriced, but the attendant explained that today was a "service" day, the word "service," in Japanese English, indicating that you get something for free. For 300 yen, one person could go inside and stay forever.

Since the setup looked way too complicated for Corny to go inside on her own, my wife went in with her. I sat outside, and what I observed was that, while kids entered, no kids emerged. Obviously a success, then.

My daughter was in amongst the balls for 35 minutes by the clock, which I think means it was a success. The next day, she wanted to go back to the same park, which I guess confirms that the place was a success.

We spent almost five hours at the park, and only saw about half of it. Apparently there are some kind of athletic facilities and also there is a putting course for golf fanatics.

The whole place was cheap and spacious, laid out in extensive grounds with lawns and trees, with no need to stand in line for any attraction. A world removed from Disneyland, in other

On one of our afternoons in Ito, we were wandering down a quiet shopping street and the music playing for the strolling public was that of a koto, the tune being the cherry blossom song that starts "Sakura, sakura." Monday, while we were in the park in the morning, my wife noticed that the first cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom.

January is emphatically not the cherry blossom season. But it has been a warm winter, and so, down in Ito, the cherry blossom has already started to bloom.

If I've succeeded in uploading the photo which I planned to include with this blog entry, then at the top of the page there will be a photo of our evening meal, the one we had on Sunday night.

It shows what is very much a traditional Japanese meal. The details will not show up in the photo, but I think it gives an idea of the sheer complexity of the dinner table setup, with many, many dishes, one dish for each individual item.

If by chance you read this and you happen to be heading to Ito, they have a tourist office right at the station, and the station is where the bus for the amusement park leaves from. (One bus and hour, and please have the exact change for the driver, and make sure you take a ticket when you get on so the driver knows how far you've traveled on the bus.)

Ito, I think, is not the kind of place you'd visit Japan in order to see, but, for people like us, who live and work in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, it makes a nice getaway break.

The music of the koto playing, the cherry blossom starting to bloom, sashimi on the dining table with a bottle of the local sake to go with it, the miso soup and the hiraki on the breakfast table in the morning, the tsunami warning and the latest sumo tournament both on TV on the same day, the woman from the hotel kneeling graciously to set food on the table ... this is, I think, about as traditional as you can realistically expect today's Japan to get.

The sake, by the way, was not from the hotel, since booze was not part of the package. We bought it ourselves. And, although we are, generally, an abstemious household, our weekly alcohol intake typically limited to one and a half glasses of wine on a Saturday, on this occasion we killed a 720 milliliter bottle between the two of us, with me drinking the lion's share. A very nice taste of the traditional Japan, thank you very much.

(Part of a dying tradition, I'm afraid. My students are typically surprised when I tell them I drink sake because, as a rule, they don't. Sake is, increasingly, part of the world of the older generation. For today's Japan, the ruling drink is beer.)


Anonymous Steve said...

Thanks Hugh, a very entertaining post!

6:10 PM  

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