Japan- Doors not open to Gaijin

The Japanese are known for their hospitality or Omotenashi. According to Coto Academy, the term defines Japanese hospitality. But its meaning goes way deeper than the way of providing hospitality. The noun means “to entertain guests wholeheartedly”.

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Kyoto at night so pretty, there is another side

Having traveled extensively in Japan, studied both the language, history and culture I was taken aback when flatly refused entry to a piano bar in Kyoto recently. After a day wandering around a city that is easy to love, the idea of relaxing and listening to some cool Jazz music seemed like a great way to end the day. I went to the bar to ask opening times, which I could clearly see on a sign but was told I could not come, of course, I had a puzzled look on my face but this was met with no English spoken from the other party.

This post maybe somewhat contentious, and indeed as a white European woman, I rarely experience racism or cultural alienness. My heart is heavy for those who have to live with this on a daily basis. Over the years of travel in Japan and elsewhere in the world where my physical appearance is different to others, it is understandable that people are curious. This makes me recall a trip to India with my blonde, blue eyed friend who drew a fan club wherever we went, and indeed in the early years of my travel to Japan, my blue eyes seemed to freak people out!  fast forward to 2017 and gaijin are not so much of a rare sight in Japan, so this attitude was quite unexpected. This led me to delve a bit further around the streets of Gion. Gion is a neighborhood frequented by the elusive Geisha and the well-heeled people of Kyoto.

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Lots of lanterns

Gion is a neighborhood frequented by the elusive Geisha and the well-heeled people of Kyoto. What I discovered was that there was numerous, very secretive and closed door type of establishments. I initially found this curious until I returned to my hotel and thought it through.

So, had I just been basically told that I was not allowed into the bar because I was Gaijin?

The word for foreigner or non-Japanese is Gaijin. It is slightly derogatory but universally used. An interesting article I read discusses the phenomena that no matter how hard one tries, learns the language or even worse, being born and raised in Japan… if you are non-Japanese, you will never fit in. This article drew a lot of heated commentary admonishing the writer when in my opinion he was pointing out the elephant in the room. I have not had to face this on an on going basis, but this to me seems like racism. Indeed entire thesis has been written on this topic, so I am only scratching the surface here, but comments on this would be eagerly received and discussed.

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Discreet secluded doorways

I believe I did experience racism. Why should I be surprised? our fellow humans are subject to this on a daily basis all over the world. Maybe it is because we expect too much from the Japanese Omotenashi.

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High-end restaurants

Conversely, I am often treated with such cow tailing from people, specifically in India, that it is embarrassing, for want of a better description to feel as though I should be looked up to as a westerner.

Hopefully, and again in a perfect world, one day, as the song goes we will all be One Tribe. ( Black Eyed Peas)

One tribe, one time, one planet, one race
It’s all one blood, don’t care about your face
The color of your eye
Or the tone of your skin
Don’t care where you are
Don’t care where you been
‘Cause where we gonna go
Is where we wanna be
The place where the little language is unity

 

 

 

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 2

As I approached Nijo-jo castle I seriously had tears in my eyes. Ever since studying Japanese history I have dreamt of visiting this castle. Excited is an undestatement!

DAY TWO. NIJO-JO CASTLE AND FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA SHRINE.  This is the second of two posts on Kyoto, the first one you can read here .

Kyoto needs more than two days, I discovered, so in the interests of learning more about one of my favorite periods of history I chose to visit less rather than more places.  I think this gave me insight into a part of Japan well worth a second visit.

NIJO-JO CASTLE

Nijo-jo Castle has witnessed some of the most important events of Japanese history. It is an impressive sight to behold and the stories of the Nightingale floors surrounding the inner sanctum held me fascinated to learn more about the Shogun era. The first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan ending the civil war, ushering in a period of over 260 years of peace and prosperity although shut off completely from the western world. That is an impressive 15 generations of rule. In 1867 the castle was also the backdrop and place where the 15th Shogun returned the political rule to The Emperor and began the Meiji period from which Japan developed rapidly from a feudal society into the modern democratic nation of today.

 

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Nijo jo castle is an imposing structure surrounded and fortified with huge stone walls surrounded by deep moats. The tranquil gardens within the walls are also, as most Japanese gardens are, sublime and beautiful.

Hiring the audio tour was excellent and the entire visit not overly expensive. I recall the ticket included tea at a tea house within the walls but forgot this, unfortunately. The nightingale floors in Nijo jo castle literally sound like birds chirping. The noise of these warned the shogun and his minders of any approaching intruders. I have long held this as a romantic type notion only to have it crushed whilst listening to the recorded tour !! They do indeed make this noise but it was by accident rather by design that this occurred! The entire interior has large flamboyant and detailed pictures mostly depicting  scene of nature but including ferocious animals such as tigers , all showing off the power and strength of the Shogun.

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Check out the size of this moat! The grounds and gardens leave a person awestruck by the majesty of this place and the history behind it. Set aside three hours to comfortably see this castle.

FUSHIMI INARI-TAISHA SHRINE

I can’t even think where to start with this amazing place! Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine is just a must see when you visit Kyoto.

Again I used insidekyoto to guide me through this incredible place. Google maps are awesome to guide you to the relevant trains to get here and once you have reached the destination the magic unfolds.

The shrine is dedicated to the gods of rice and sake. There are over 5000 bright orange tori gates the wind up a hill stopping at a magical lake with graveyards and smaller shrines on the way.

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At the start of the walk is the major temple. Here, there is a small shrine to the right with thousands of peace cranes made of origami folded by students praying for luck in exams.

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Oigami peace cranes

All through the shrine and the walk are a lot of foxes with keys in their mouths. The Fox is the messenger of the god of grain foods, Inari, and the keys in the fox mouths are keys to granaries.

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The Fox is the messenger of the grain god Inari.

The most stunning part, in my mind, was the meandering walk through the gates.  Apparently some of the gates date back to 711 A.D. Some say there are 5,000 and other info I read say over 10,000!!
These gates are entrances to shrines in Shinto religion, these ones are a bit different as they have been donated by people and organizations to give thanks for prosperity and hopes of more good luck. So as you walk up the gates are solid red and the names are engraved on the back. I walked up through the winding path to an amazing lake at the top full of huge koi and turtles which were a real surprise. If you get the opportunity please visit this place… indescribable might be my best word to try and describe this sight!

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Hello from Kyoto

KYOTO: Shoguns and Geishas Part 1

I cannot believe I have not been to this wondrous place before. Step back in time to the richness that is the history of Japan. You can almost imagine yourself in the era of the Shoguns. My studies of Japanese history have always held me enthralled with Kyoto and finally, I am here! Kyoto is absolutely charming, quaint alleys, temples and shrines galore, geishas, ryokans, and more modern day offerings such as cute craft beer bars on the river….whats not to love.

Footnote: Two days was not enough but was a great taster. A stay in a Ryokan would be high on my list and more time wandering around Gion at night, especially to some of the more interesting places behind closed doors.

TWO DAYS IN KYOTO

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Prettiness in Gion

 

HOW I GOT HERE- I caught the Platt Kodomo shinkansen from Tokyo station. Obviously dreaming of ancient Japan I ended up in Osaka instead.. hmm rookie error and discovered that the distance is only 15 mins by shinkansen, or 40 mins on the local train, which is a lot cheaper. Telling myself it is all part of the adventure ( secretly irritated at myself) I eventually ended up where I was supposed to be. I discovered that Kyoto is more bus orientated than other cities so again I was glad I didn’t opt for the more expensive rail pass. The buses are easy and a day pass is around Y500

WHERE I STAYED-   I also chose Airbnb for this stay and picked a place near to the beating heart of Kyoto that is Gion. I chose this area as it was central and within safe night walking distance to most places I wanted to go to.

DAY ONE

An early start was in order as I realized there was far more to see here than two days allowed, so don’t try and do too much but rather savor the time exploring fewer places I have decided. I would highly recommend checking insidekyoto.com for their wonderful suggested itineraries, I literally used them as a guide map for everything I did in Kyoto, so helpful and informative plus easy to follow directions and tips.

Tenryu-ji Temple and Gardens – Arashiyama. Easy to get to by train, then a nice walk over the river to the temple and gardens. As it was a hot summer day I tried cucumbers on a stick – really, they are pickled in brine and lemon and were really refreshing. There is a recipe for this in another of my posts, so simple and easy- have a go!

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Pickled cucumbers for a summer snack

The temple itself is a large Zen Temple with some of the most famed gardens in Kyoto. I was here in June which is not as busy as other seasons, I can imagine the splendor of the gardens in both the cherry blossom season and in autumn, of course having to navigate the crowds at this time is a trade off. Personally, I found early June perfect as the crowds have lessened and the weather is warm.

 

 

 

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The walk through the gardens meandered up the hill where I found a temple restaurant called Shigetsu and decided to treat myself, knowing it was all vege cuisine.

 

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Shojin Ryori lunch at Tenryu-ji Temple

Shojin ryori cooking is the Zen Buddhist style that does not allow for strong flavors such as garlic and onions- interestingly similar to some cuisines in India- specifically Jain food. Each meal must have a harmony of the six basic flavors- bitter, sour, sweet, salty, light and hot, and on top of this the three qualities of light and flexible, clean and neat and conscientious and thorough. All meals eaten by the monks are proceeded and followed by verses expressing gratitude…. hmm also not that different from many faiths.
My favorite dish was the one in the top left, made of several components being I think a banana flower- the pink shoot one, a small green perfectly tied bundle with the most delicate matcha flavor mochi I have ever had and konnyaku- the dark brown item. This is the basis for shirataki noodles, a Japanese superfood… it is an acquired taste but the texture is very unique, bouncy and chewy.
I did a basic lesson in this style of cooking and had dreams of mastering this one day. When this food was put in front of me I was in awe of the simplicity and sheer beauty of it, the training, skill and patience involved is something people spend their entire lives perfecting… wow.

After lunch, walking through the gardens was a peaceful way to appreciate the attention to detail and serenity the gardens of this magnificent temple provide to Kyoto and the world.  Everywhere I looked simplicity and beauty shone through.

I again followed the directions of Insidekyoto to the north exit and walked into the incredible Arashiyama bamboo forest. The sheer height and colors combined with the odd dark wooden branches are a photographers dream. As I was here I was remembering my friend and photographer Mike Hollman’s work and marveled at how he managed to get such perfect shots. Head to his page to view these as they are unbelievable. When I saw his shots a year or so ago it made me want to visit and here I am!

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The warmth of the day and the walk provided the perfect excuse for a cool beverage, so off back into the city in search of a spot to sit and people watch. There is the main river running through the city and alongside this are dozens of small restaurants and bars mainly accessed off Pontocho Alley which is very quaint, touristy but still lovely. I found a small bar called Bar Jive up a steep flight of stairs that literally sat about ten people, all of whom were Australians, time to share some stories and cold beer, as we down under are so good at.

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Pontocho Alley

Gion is the centre of the cities nightlife on the opposite side of the river. Here it was important to follow the directions at Insidekyoto to where the geisha stroll about. It is a few streets of the main Dori (street) so could be easily missed. I was completely stunned by the winding cobbled paths, pretty willows ( I think that’s what they were… but just setting the scene) hanging over the shallow streams, cranes standing on one leg, fairy lights strung into the trees and yes, geishas walking the streets to their business. They sure can move quickly in those wooden shoes, I can’t believe I couldn’t snap a decent photo- but I am sure that was how it was meant to be. These pretty back streets are home to any number of very discreet, high-end restaurants and clubs, and I got a distinct impression that foreigners are not all that welcome. This is a case of invites only, on a highly sought after list, which needed forward planning. Never mind, next time I will plan this part better.

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Pretty streams in Gion

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Almost expecting a gondola to float by

A nightcap in a Spanish tapas bar seemed in order to finish off a full day. Japan is a gourmets delight for international cuisine, and not just at the high end as is the case in many countries due to the high cost of internationally trained chefs I am guessing. Whilst I had been told this by my friend and didi (Hindi word for sister) in Tokyo, in my mind this conjured up meals with a Japanese undertone. Well not so, and I take it all back…. the Spanish food I had was just fantastic.

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My spanish drinking pal

End of day one. Kyoto I love you and am so excited for tomorrow. I dream of samurai continues. The below picture marks the end of day one…. Sake and Bed.

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Thank you, and to all a good night.

JAPAN : Insiders guide to Pachinko, Toilets and more

This is my very first blog on one of my favorite countries- Japan, and I have chosen to title it like that- what was I thinking? There are so many oddities here for us westerners that I would be remiss of me to not mention them!

This trip to Japan is a quick one ( seven days) but covers a lot of ground. If you only have a week this is totally achievable and will leave you hankering for more. I will be posting articles on each city I visited separately. This post is about some of the more curious aspects of Japan and modern Japanese culture that I find fascinating. In fact entire TV series and books have been made dedicated to the  quirkiness of Japanese culture. I have family in Japan and as a disclaimer I love and respect the Japanese people, but man they have some peculiar ways of doing stuff!

TOILETS . When I first came to Japan in the late 1980’s most toilets outside the hotels were the squat type so McDonald’s and Dunkin Donuts were the only places us delicate types would venture to use. Now the Japanese have mastered the art of sitting in peace. Or, one could say this is a natural extension of Zen…A typical toilet, even in airports has a heated seat, a bidet ( for the back bits) and a washer ( for the lady bits) and even music that is optional in case you don’t  want the person beside you to hear your personal sounds ( how perfect this would be at home many of you are thinking) The instruction panels range from the very pictorial basic ones to mind boggling variations that leave me wondering, really, just how many ways are the to do this? Beware the flush button as this may be confused with the attendant call button.

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A basic control panel!

PACHINKO

These parlors make our Aussie  Pokie rooms look like child’s play- do not be fooled,  it is way more serious. I have now had two attempts at this, both unaided and I have come out no wiser as to how on earth this game works. A disclaimer is that I was never any good at Pinball. So, from what I can gather you put money in, get a load of steel balls and shoot them around to win more steel balls. Sounds relatively simple, but I just failed miserably in getting any balls back , so after my Y 2000 ( about $23 AUD) was all gone I gave up. This place is not for the faint hearted , the noise is incredible, the players relentless in their dedication, ambition and their chain smoking. Obviously this is a game of skill that is beyond me as many people had basket upon basket of balls stacked up beside them. Have a go- if not just for the experience.

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View of the machine- sensory alert

TRAIN ETIQUETTE

Japan is a nation of many millions,and as as such their cultural etiquette is all about politeness- on the surface at least. Order is what makes thier society work. Follow the signs and the rules. Of course the Gaijin (or Foreigner ) card still appliers in most instances whereby any dumb move on your behalf is written off. That being said, when in Rome do as in Japan I say.

On the escalator, stand on one side-which side I do not know as it seems to vary, just follow and all will be well. At the platform, orderly queues for before each train is due ( and they are ALWAYS on time) let the people get off first and then you are good to go. Thinking back isn’t this they way I was bought up? yeah.. what has happened to modern day western politeness?

SMOKING

Wow the Japanese love to smoke! its changing but beware that smoking is still allowed inside most restaurants, although there are usual designated areas. Odd since its not allowed outside- in Tokyo at least.

POLITENESS

The English are known for their stiff upper lip, and politeness- but most of the time this is cynical humour- I am originally English so feel somewhat justified in saying that. The Japanese however take it to the next level. It can be somewhat foreboding until you relax into it and just accept this is what they do. Being greeted at my hotel- and a cheap one at that by people bowing can be a little unsettling, but rather nice. Then the entire staff at the check in all do the same thing.. walk to the lift and someone is thee to push the button- well that saves my energy I thought.. lovely… get in the lift and the button pusher is there bowing to me as the doors close- awesome!

PUBLIC BATHS

Today I had my first experience in a “public Bath” how hard could this be.. yahoo, in Australia we refer to them as spas or hot tubs, generally an experience being sometimes a solo affair with a quiet cup of tea or a team event involving numerous people, cocktails and rowdy music. Not so in Japan. Of course I was aware that here bathing is taken seriously, so when I booked onto a hotel that offered this , I was ready to go. After a full days sightseeing experience in Osaka, a relaxing bath was just the ticket. I read, and re read the instructions carefully, also phoning a friend to do some double checking. I did put a cheeky little bottle of wine in my bag, just in case I was alone and could recreate my bathtub at home.

After dressing in the appropriate “room wear” having stripped down entirely, I donned the room slippers and headed off. Boys and girls have their own rooms… enter the anti chamber… another pair of slippers is required, so I leave my ones at the door and don those for the meter walk into the changing area, I then did a quick scope of the bath chamber and realised I needed to now bare all. Whilst being a bit confronting, nobody gives a damn! I sit myself down on the child like chair and shower then hop in the HOT bath. Hmm clearly the quick shower is not quite enough, my other bathing companions are slowly and surely lathering themselves from head to toe methodically. Ok ill give it a few minutes, if I don’t pass out from the heat…silently wishing I had had a swig from the wine to calm my unsure disposition. After what seemed like for ever I decided to exit stage left and got out and proceeded to do the full lather for extra cleanliness.

CAPSULE AND LOVE HOTELS. Usually I would have put this under the heading of sub culture, however this is so mainstream that it deserves a mention here. My Airbnb lodgings were in very mainstream areas and I constantly saw hotels advertising rates by the hour- of course I cant say exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but short term hotel stays of 1- 3 hours is quite normal- maybe they just need a cup of tea and a lie down huh!

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Love Hotel

SUB CULTURE

Much has been made of the weirder side of life in Japan, the sub culture or quirkiness of places like Hrajuku in Tokyo with the numerous Maid Cafes, Cat Cafes, Bird and even Hedgehog Cafes, and on it goes. There is a glitzy sub culture of sexuality and I am not talking Geisha girls here…so what ever rocks your boat you will find it here in Japan that’s for sure.

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Maids outfits

As I have neared the end of this insight into some of the quirkier things I have experienced I realise there are so, so many others. I   will either write chapter two or intersperse them with the following posts. Thank you  for reading- I hope this has been helpful and informative, and when you experience these things on your travels- please share and let me know.