Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holiday tales

OK so here's the goss on Japan - it was GREAT! I finished night shift Wed morning at 7.20am and slept for about 2-ish hours, then I got up and finished packing...I don't think I forgot anything except the phone charger - not important as it didn't work cos I'd been too busy to put it on international roaming. So the trip was even more special because we were so totally incommunicado.

I have now decided that we are not crossing the Pacific again without going business class. All the hassle of getting to airports hours early for international flights is negated by the convenience of the business class lounge. Food and drink laid on (esp. Singapore lounge - fantastic). Yay! The service on the flight was so attentive, I was fed literally all the way to Singapore. I practically had to beg them to stop bringing me food so I could get some sleep from Singapore to Fukuoka.

We arrived at breakfast time on Thursday and were met by a good friend Dr Takayuki Sueta who had spent two years in Perth. He took us to the university department adjacent to the hospital where he practises as an ENT surgeon. There we met various other staff members and had a tour of the hearing research facilities, and as a special treat for me a trip to the neonatal nursery attached to one of the maternity wards, where I saw some sweet little Japanese babies in their many layers of wrappings including tiny kimono style tops. It was very thoughtful to include my interests and to introduce me to the staff of the unit, I was most touched.
We then returned to the department where we were joined by Takayuki's wife and children and her parents, who we had met in Perth. It was a delirious reunion and we soon headed off together in a hire car to a mountain hot springs resort, the Kurakawa Onsen. Our room was third from the left top. We were accompanied by the wife of another ENT surgeon who has known us for many years, and who has also lived in Perth and the USA.

The resort was very like the area I lived in (also in Japan at Minakami onsen) as a young girl 27 years ago! The rooms were beautiful, two large single beds, and a tatami mat area, with a private deck overlooking the river and the mountainside, which included a private outdoor bath with piped hot spring water for round the clock bathing. Ahhhh ... when in Rome ... It was irresistible ... the sounds of the river bend below..the stark late winter trees beyond. Just gorgeous. We had an incredible and extravagant Japanese dinner in a special private dining room on tatami overlooking a small pond with enormous koi fish.
The little girls were relaxing in our presence. Rikako (6) was born in Perth and was with us there until she was nearly 2 years of age. Her mother Chihaya and I are very close. We hadn't met the new daughter Mami, who is 16 months. Both are delightful and full of fun. A lovely family. After dinner we all had trips to the outdoor baths. The men went first, then the women - me, Chihaya, Noriko and Rikako all trooped off wearing our hotel bathrobes and slippers through the hotel to the large public bath first where we rinsed off and had an initial soak. Then, clad in nothing but our small thin handtowels we ventured out into the cool spring night, and soaked in turn in various small rock hotpools, ending up eventually in the riverside pool, among the rocks above the rapids under the stars. It was a lovely way to spend an hour, naked with friends, exchanging news and relaxing in the hot water. We worked our way back through a cave pool and finally back into the big public indoor bath again where we soaped and scrubbed fully and had a last soak. A unique Japanese pleasure, which I came to understand more fully on this trip. We were so lucky to be there.

Presents for all the women were given and received with delight. I had made a handbag for ChihayaNoriko and another friend Fumiko, plus of course presents for the little girls including Easter chocolates.
After an elaborate full Japanese breakfast in the hotel (and another quick tub on the deck), and a quick walk we headed off to a nearby mountain Mt Asa. This is a volcanic area, with five peaks, but unfortunately it was very misty and the view was impaired, so we went down into the ancient caldera and went to a soba dojo where we made buckwheat noodles from soba beans ground into flour. This was great fun, and Don was the star! The instructor was very impressed that a man in his fifties took so readily to mixing, kneading and rolling the noodles (such a skill is not very common in Japanese culture apparently). They then cooked the noodles for us for lunch in a yummy broth. Then off to Kumomoto to visit the castle and towers- very picturesque, lovely grounds, and enormous winding stone walls to protect the towers. interesting historical displays from the edo period. There were plum trees in blossom but sadly it was a bit too early for the cherry blossoms.

We returned to Fukuoka and were deposited in a very nice hotel for an hour or so, before being picked up for a special dinner in a fine French restaurant on a hill overlooking the city. Oh. My. God. I have never had such an elaborate French meal. 8 courses including French wines and sobets and hand-made truffles. We were a party of 11 and included the retiring Professor Dr Kato, the current head of the department Professor Nakagawa and his wife, Dr Morizono and his wife Noriko, Dr Takayuki and his wife Chihaya, Dr Yamano and his wife Fumiko (also Perth visitor friends) and ourselves. It was a very special night.

How did we communicate? Mostly in English, but I was seated between Professor Kato who understood some English but was not confident speaking it, and on my left was Professor Nakagawa whose English was excellent. I understand a tiny bit of Japanese and blundered on when I could with small talk, but Noriko was my translator for the majority of the night. What a honey, she is really practical, and has such a sense of humour. Kato and I found we had things in common, including singing and wine appreciation (although I don't drink now), and that his wife (who would be present the next day) would be able to communicate with us in French as she was involved in the France - Japan society.

I was also able to see Fumiko and Takafumi. Noriko and Chihaya had told me the day before that they had lost a baby at term in August last year. Such sad, shocking news, Fumiko was so brave as she told me a little more about it as I crouched next to her at the other end of the table. His name was Kuroke, and his Mum is sure she will meet him again when he returns to her as their next baby. I told her about a similar story I had read here, which moved me so much. (I have since printed out a translation for her and will send it to her this week, along with a gift in memory of him). We were both a bit misty-eyed and had to retire to the loo, but I was so glad to see them both, and give them my hugs and sympathies in person. Birth truly is as safe as life gets. There is no known reason for his death, they had waited and tried for 5 years to have a baby. It is never fair.
Next day we were picked up and taken by train to the Kyushu National Museum, a fascinating building with beautiful displays of the history of the Asian region and its people. The most beautiful artifacts, things I had never seen before such as flame pots, and the use of earthenware clay for coffins/burial pots. Incredible. We then went to the Daizafu Shrine, where people go to pray for exam success. We prayed (someone, somewhere must need it). We then had lunch in a local restaurant before a lightning bit of 'Power Shopping' for some souvenirs and textiles before returning to the city by mid-afternoon.

The big function that night was the symposium and retirement banquet. This necessitated 3 speeches by Don including a half-hour scientific speech, comments for the retirement and presentation of a plaque to Professor Kato. It was a pretty big deal, and as the invited overseas guest(s) we were treated to the nicest tables and waited on, while most people milled around and served themselves. Professor Kato's wife was delighted to have some francophones to converse with (Don is very fluent, and I can get by OK), and I got thoroughly confused for a while about which language to answer in to anyone! It is funny that I have used French each time I have visited Japan, as a lingua franca of second choice, with either Japanese or European visitors I have met. All those years in high school were not wasted! The food once again was great. It was a great honour to be invited. Some of the staff were wearing traditional dress, and we managed a quick photo with them. They were a doctor and two departmental secretaries, who were looking after us so kindly. Hardly any other wives were invited. There was a bit of drinking in a hotel bar after the banquet, then off to bed, very relieved that the technical aspects of the talks had gone well and they were well received.

On our last day we went by train with all our friends to a town to the south called Yanagawa, a city of water with canals, where there was a festival for girls (March 3) and dolls (March 13). The whole town is decorated with little dolls and brightly coloured mobiles celebrating girls and dolls. We arrived a bit late for the water parade, but there were heaps of people in town, and visiting the ohana, sort of a town hall/museum place. We found some early cherry blossoms!Sakura at last! We ate a lunch of eel, a local delicacy, steamed with rice and despatched to dining parties with efficiency in lovely laquered boxes. Once again we were in a tatami dining hall on the floor, a bit of a challenge for some, including one of our hosts. But the company was great. Don made a toast to our friends, to thank them for being so hospitable and thoughtful during our stay, and for showing us so much culture and kindness. This left half of us in tears (the women), as we realised we would be separated again the next day, just when we were so enjoying being together again. That night we had another dinner together at a tempura restaurant in our hotel, as a party of 8 in a private dining room, another beautifully presented 11 course meal with a Spring theme, including cherry blossoms in the soup, and seasonal produce, and many local varieties of sake rice wine - each style served in a different sake flask and glasses. Just gorgeous.

And the next morning we were seen off by the Morizonos and the Suetas at the airport for the full day journey back home. We had been so thoughtfully taken care of during the trip - a whirlwind 4 days on the ground. Our friends were so attentive, even though their lives were so busy. Takayuki's mother was in hospital, about to have surgery for supected lung cancer and he was driving us around! We felt guilty for taking up so much of their time, but had a few hours to wander the streets ourselves and (not quite) get lost. I found a place with scapbooking supplies to make a card for her in my hotel room, as I couldn't find a card shop in our area!

Japan was much as I had remembered it, bustling, beautiful, civilised, polite, fascinating, friendly and very foreign and alienating to someone as text based as I am. It is quite odd to not understand ANY of the text that surrounds you. Speaking of which...

This is a Japanese western style toilet. Our hotel toilet to be precise, but similar ones could be found everywhere. We didn't sit on a cold toilet seat anywhere, because they are all heated to a cosy-bottom temperature! I kid you not! It was astounding. In addition, all the other contraptions are for, ahem, washing purposes. One can dial up a front wash, a backside wash, a single jet, a tidal wave full bowl fountain spray, or oscillating, just dial-up the pressure required. Is that too much information? And yes, I did try it out. Having a jet of warm water aimed with extreme accuracy is quite an experience I can assure you! I don't want to know how it aims, no, really I don't! Can you imagine the power consumption that goes into that bit of engineering? Keeping bottoms warm all over Japan!

The food was incredible. Don was in heaven, I tried most things, but I will never be a fan of everything on offer in Japan (even Don found some things startling). Why did I find it difficult to accept that 'tea' was usually salty, yet if they called it soup I would usually cope? We were fed raw horse, raw egg, miso soup, 12 different green teas, pickled plums, eel, Hokkaido Snow crab, Kagoshima beef, tiny whole baby cuttlefish, fugu (blowfish), tempura, river fish, sea perch, caviar, prawns, fungi, seaweed, agar, red-bean paste cakes, and every kind of seafood and sashimi known to man. Here is Don's lunch on Day 1 (minus the first bit)And of course rice, rice and more rice and more nori. Not to mention the French menu we were treated to, the banquets and more. It was truly amazing. Its all such an art form.

And the people in general. So polite. So kind. The service. Incredible. And our friends - I just wanted to fit them all in my suitcase and take them home. But the point was that I was seeing them in their home town, and they seemed so delighted to host us. I would go back again!
So...its a long story with heaps of photos. Somehow I didn't take many group pics, but I hope our friends did and send us some!
What a marathon post. Its late at night here and I've just come off 3 nights of night shift, so I'm still up at 3.30am. Many stories to tell from work too for another day.
Ah well... I'm on proper holidays now for 2 weeks.
Talk again soon!


Frogdancer said...

What a fantastic post. Now I want to go to Japan. You obviously had a terrific time. (Loved the second bag you made as a gift... beautiful shape.)

Natalie said...

Wow. What a fantastic post. I need to read it 2 more times, just to absorb all of the details and content. You've had such an amazing journey and you've shared it so nicely, I feel like I have had the best insight into traveling in Japan ever.

alice said...

What an adventure. I do love reading about trips and ventures. Thank you for sharing :)