I was thrilled to arrive in Japan after trekking in Ethiopia for five days. I was looking forward to organization, cleanliness and a good bath. I had a big smile on my face as we landed in Narita. Lorne was not very pleased with me and continued to say that I should not be so happy to leave a country. But, I was. Ethiopia as I explained on an earlier post, was a challenging place for me, which I was happy to experience, but also leave. I was so relaxed that it was a breeze going through customs at Narita airport. I was ready to immerse myself in the Japanese culture and become a Geisha. After all, my maiko training was completed.
We had been briefly in Japan three years ago, which provided us a small taste of Japan. I recall a highly organized culture where everything seemed to go smoothly. This time, we decided to stay for 15 days and travel outside of the big cities. Lorne organized Japanrail passes as a way to traveling around Japan. After we went through customs, we went and picked up our railway passes. Then we went outside and waited for the airport shuttle to take us to our hotel. We were exhausted and had ramen noddles at a small place across from the hotel. It was relaxing to experience an easy place to travel in. It was also nice to go back to using a toilet with heated seats, music and cleaning devices. The Western toilets in Japan are more like computers than regular dumping places.
Lorne noticed changes in my behaviour in Japan. He said I tried to walk with less speed and more grace. That I bowed a lot and let others in front of me and held my head just so my hair will stay in its place. I guess I was trying to be more Geisha like. Lorne on the other hand did not change his behaviour. In Japan, I realized I was traveling with Godzilla (Lorne). We are carrying 55 litres backpacks on our backs and 15 litres backpacks in front. It takes patience, grace and care to get into buses and trains without knocking people off, but it can be done. We all know Lorne lacks patience and care and at times behaves like a freight train. Godzilla, as I continued to refer to him throughout our journey, would get distracted on trains or in crowded places and turn his body around forgetting that he is wearing a huge pack. He would push people and almost knock people over. On the bullet train in Kanazawa, Lorne thew his small pack onto his seat causing the seat back tray of the passenger in the next row to shake and knock his thermos to the floor. On another train Lorne’s water bottle leaked all over the empty seat next to him that was reserved for someone else. Let’s say Geisha was not happy.
In Nozawa Onsen resort we went on a “onsen crawl” visiting over 8 onsen (small hot spring baths) over 2 days. The Japanese take bathing seriously and have very specific rules about using onsen. You have to sit on a stool and scrub your body with soap and rinse off before you enter the bath. You must bath nude, you must not have tattoos, you must not let your towel touch the water (so it is worn on your head folded like a hat). You can imagine what it was like bringing Godzilla into onsen. First off his glasses would get fogged. Second he gets hyper. Third, Godzilla cannot help himself. In one Onsen, Godzilla splashed the man behind him while trying to work the hand held shower. In another, Godzilla put his shoes in the cubby space for clothing (Japanese are particular about placement of shoes). In another onsen, Godzilla grabbed another man’s towel from the cubby. The man yelled at him. Finally, my favourite, Godzilla saw a plastic basket with cremes and lotions. He thought it was samples and started looking at the bottles and smelling the lotions and trying them. The lotions belonged to a Japanese man in the bath who was looking on in horror but did not say anything. I wish I could hide in this moments and go unnoticed, but let’s face it, even with my Geisha make up on, as a redhead I am still very noticeable.
Japanese are the most polite people I have ever met and would not say anything when Godzilla behaved this way. Perhaps they expect this behaviour from foreigners. Sometimes, we would see a 2 or 3 year old behaving this way in the trains and Godzilla would point out that he was not the only one behaving like this. I would remind Godzilla that there was a significant age gap between him and the child, but Godzilla would focus on something else. Godzilla was unable to sit still for long (over 30 seconds) and would jump and start taking pictures of people on the train while carrying his backpack and eating food. At the beginning of our journey, I would feel extremely embarrassed and upset at Godzilla. However, understanding I was traveling with Godzilla and there was nothing I could do to prevent these incidents, I started to ignore and at times pretend we were not together. I would sit still and behave like the locals trying to only channelled the attention at Godzilla. This was hard at times given that we carrying the same colour packs and dress the same way like bobsey twins.
Our rail pass took us to isolated communities in the south of Japan such as Obama and Onomishi where we did a 75 km bike tour to Imabari. This provided us with a break from the cities we had visited and a chance to explore the countryside. Also, a chance for Godzilla to burn some energy and be outdoors. We picked oranges from the side of road as we were biking. This was something I thought impossible in Japan as we saw $50 dollar watermelons in the department stores. Travelling by train made me realized that Japan is not that small and that our preference for places when traveling are small towns. The highly controlled and stylized behaviour seen in Tokyo and Kyoto is completely different in small towns. All around, Japanese are extremely kind and helpful, but the countryside people are way more relax and friendly also more likely to interact with foreigners than city people despite their limited English and our limited to non-Japanese.
We stayed as much as possible in traditional Japanese Inns call Ryokans. It was really comfortable sleeping on tatami matts and wearing traditional Japanese clothing (Yucatas). It was also nice to use Japanese showers where you sit and scrub before going into the hot baths. I struggled eating fish and rice the last time we were in Japan. This time, I did not miss bread at all. We had Japanese food as much as we could. There is such a huge diversity of Japanese food that we did not get tired of eating just one thing. I was also very happy to put on some pounds (not that many) as I was sure food was cooked properly. I lost around 10 pounds in Peru, so was glad to have them almost all back.
One of the highlights of my trip to Japan was to re-unite with Ryoko, one of my friends I met while learning English in Vancouver. Ryoko and I befriended with our limited English 16 years ago when we were studying at the English Language Institute at UBC. Despite not seeing each other, we picked up where we left and caught up with updating each other on what we had done during all this time. Living in Vancouver has taught me that many times you make friends and have to say goodbye. However, when two people care for each other and their friendship, no matter how far they are or how often they talk or how different their realities are, they will look for opportunities to re-connect. We both have kept hand-written letters we wrote to each other over the years and have kept in contact through e-mails. Hopefully, the next time we see teacher will not be that long.
At the end of our journey, Godzilla looked less like Godzilla and Geisha looked less like Geisha. I guess I was more relaxed around Japanese culture and Godzilla was a bit more aware of its surroundings. We both truly enjoyed the culture, the food, the people we met along the way like Ko in Osaka who told us that Osakans are the latinos of Japan for their loudness) and the people we re-connected with like Ryoko and Adrien from Montreal.
Arigato gosaimas Japan and look forward to seeing more of your beauty next time we come back. Perhaps, I might graduate from Maiko to Geisha during our next trip.