Tokyo and Kyoto, People and Culture
Travel Special: Japan (Post 1 of 3)
This past New Years my husband, son (Carver), and I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Japan. It was a first for the three of us. We spent 6 days in Tokyo and 3 days in Kyoto. Regardless of how many tour guides we read, how many picture books we looked through, or how many posts we read online, we really didn’t know what to expect. We went with open minds ready and adventuresome hearty appetites. Needless to say, thanks to my aunt Mimi and uncle Kimi we had a blast!
I can’t give you the highlights of the trip, because everything every day was a highlight. But I will share what I can without making this post a mile long.
Yes, everything we ate and all the food we saw from the spicy ramen noodles to the intricately carved chocolate statue, were mind boggling. Either because the flavors were so intensely delicious, they were works of art, or because it was so uniquely different it scrabbled our brains and sometimes it was all of the above. Like this little guy below. He was a bite size and strange little fish but perfectly preserved… teriyaki sweet, slightly salty, crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside. I ate it with my eyes shut because he was looking at me. But sooooo good! I’m thinking if AMC Theaters put a handful of these little guys in their popcorn it would be the start of something big! Move over Junior Mints, here comes fried fishy popcorn!
Ok… maybe not. Sorry, I digress.
The temples and shrines were beautiful and soulful national treasures, but what I was most taken with were the people of Japan. We were incredibly blessed to have my aunt and uncle patiently take us by the hand and act as our tour guides and translators. Not being able to speak the language and not being able to decipher the characters, I felt like a wide eyed 3 year old before her first day of pre-school. All that aside, everyone was patient and kind with us. I’ve always heard how polite Japanese people are, and that’s true, but it goes deeper than that. They care on a fundamental level.
They also make a noticeable effort to make things easier for you and as a by product, more sanitary. For instance, the cab drivers have a lever in the front seat next to them that opens the back door. After you get into the cab, the driver closes the door with the lever. When taking a cab in Tokyo, you never touch the door. This is much harder than you would think, we kept reaching for the door automatically and I found myself chanting, “don’t touch don’t touch don’t touch.” Because the lever system is delicate, manhandling the door can break the connection with the lever. However, I think once you get used to it, getting in and out of the vehicle is soooo much easier (and cleaner) especially if you are carrying bags, maneuvering in a skirt and/or heels.
There is a sense that the Japanese people genuinely care about you, about their neighbors, about their job, about the package they’re wrapping, about the meal they are presenting, about all things no matter how small or how large. Everything is significant. You can see it in how they treat things with care like individually wrapping bananas.
You see it in the pride people take in their occupations. Even the cab drivers wear suits and ties. You see it in the food preparations and the cutest little bite size sweet treats. Everyone we came across was genuinely nice to us. Japan has such a profound sense of graciousness that you don’t just see it, you can feel it everywhere.
But there was a wonderful playfulness everywhere too! If I have any regrets about our trip, I regret not snapping a picture of these 3 beautiful teenage girls all dressed up in traditional kimonos in Kyoto. They had their iPhone on a Selfie-Stick (those things were everywhere! The “NO Selfie-Stick” signs were everywhere too) acting like goofy teenagers: making faces, doing the peace sign, and bunny ears. They were giggling and snorting and having the best time bopping around town in their kimonos. It was so dang cute!!! And the moment was gone before I could snap it up. But that’s okay, that was their moment and I didn’t want to intrude.
I caught this couple by accident. I had to ask my aunt if was a New Years Japanese custom to put bread on your head. I don’t know, could be good luck or something? She laughed, “Uh, no. They’re just being silly.” Yeah, I’m so glad I ate my bread and didn’t try to blend in by wearing it on my head… awkward.
Speaking of customs…
We all know about taking our shoes off, right? Right. Good. But what about when you go to a restaurant? Hmmm… yeah, that’s a head scratcher. Particularly, because we as Americans are hit over the head repeatedly with the sign: No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service. Some establishments are shoe-friendly and others require them to be left at the door. Thankfully, it’s not hard to figure out even if you don’t speak the language. If you see a bunch of shoes at the door, Voila! Leave your shoes at the door. No big deal. Right? Right, unless you are in the habit of not wearing socks. Ahem… like yours truly here. Thank God it was a chilly January and I wore socks or tights everyday. Thank you, Jesus! I mean Ewwww, who wants to walk barefoot into a restaurant let alone look at somebody’s bare feet while your eating! I am all for taking your shoes off anywhere and as much as possible, but when in public, wear socks! And of course, the Japanese do.
What happens if you need to use the restroom??? The Japanese are not only brilliant and fastidiously clean, they are also very clever. Get a load of this, they have special slippers in the restroom! There was always at least 1 inch drop in the floor going into the restroom and a pair of very clean slippers ready for you to pop your toes into. Just whatever you do, make sure to leave them in the restroom when you leave!!! The tatami mats cost the owners thousands of dollars (millions of yen?) and the cost and lengthy process cleaning them of restroom bacteria makes me cringe. Thankfully, we had very good guidance from my aunt and did not disgrace ourselves. Whew!
And don’t even get me started on the toilets! But we shouldn’t go there, I mean this is a food blog. It would be so wrong to discuss toilets on a food blog, right? Well… ok, this is a much longer post than normal so if you’re still reading this it’s probably because we’re already really good friends or you’re either my Mom or my Dad. So, let’s talk Japanese toilets! But before I tell you about them, I want to make it perfectly clear, I did not push ANY of the buttons. Well, that’s not true. I did push one. But every single toilet I saw in Japan had a whole series of buttons. There were lots and lots of buttons! I finally caved. It was crazy: all the restaurants, the hotels, the public restrooms at the temples and shrines, even the one in the parking garage, they all had buttons. These buttons promised to spray you off from the front, from the back (I only know this from the pictures), some would let you choose the pressure, some advertised air to dry you off, but they all had a button for noise. Yes, noise. And that, my friends, was the button I so bravely pushed: the button of noise. Did you really think I was going to push an action button and let some random toilet do something to me??? I was so not going to go all 50 Shades with some toilet I’d only just met. Oh, Hell No! The noise button seemed harmless enough, and it was. You push that button and music plays, or it sounds like a toilet flushing, or it makes little birdie noises so that any bodily noise you make is masked from the other restroom patrons. Now, come on, how polite is that?
Next Post this Wednesday: Tokyo and Kyoto, National Treasures