Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Jesus of subherbia

The continuing saga of my parents' visit last month:

It was a rainy and overcast Osaka that greeted us at the airport. The first objective was of course to find the hotel, which involved taking a monorail, a subway, and a not inconsiderable walk. While navigating the labyrinthine subway system, my parents' wheeled luggage made an improbably loud clatter that was initially amusing, then embarrassing, and eventually just irritating.

The hotel turned out to be a little on the basic side - my room contained a pair of boxers that no-one had seen fit to remove. I could see that the parentals were a little apprehensive, but my standards for living conditions are substantially lower, so I was unconcerned. Never doing any housework is its own reward, but it comes with the added bonus that one doesn't get freaked out by cheap, sketchy hotels.

By this point we were starving and morale was starting to flag, so we found a nice little place to eat, and during the meal I hastily improvised a sightseeing itinerary for the rest of the day. I decided to take us to Osaka's harbour area, which like that of many big Japanese cities, is an archipelago of oddly geometric artificial islands. The skyline was dominated by a huge ferris wheel, so we decided we wanted some of that action. We got a special transparent car, allowing us to peer vertiginously past our feet at the wheel's hub. Of course, what with the rain and low-level cloud, we weren't really seeing Osaka at its best.

Next to the ferris wheel was a strange place that was like a shopping mall crossed with a fairly lacklustre amusement park. The shops were weirdly overspecialised: there was one dedicated entirely to Hello Kitty, another to One Piece (the anime currently dominating my students' pencil cases), another to Studio Ghibli, and even one selling nothing but Crocs, those strange rubber shoes that I've never understood the point of. Amongst these merch emporia were 'attractions' like a petting zoo and some kind of ninja house, complete with miserable-looking goats and a valiantly-attempting-to-conceal-his-misery stealthy assassin, respectively. We got some ice cream and watched the ships coming in and going out again. After that we took a stroll around the docks, whose most striking feature was the sturdy 3m tsunami walls ringing the perimeter. This served as another illustration of just how little can be done to stop a 10m wave.

With the sun setting, we got back on the subway and headed for Osaka Castle. Of course, it was closed by this time, but it was still very pleasant wandering around the surrounding park, the towering structure shining bright white in the floodlights against a cloudy night sky. After that we called it a day, stopping off at a kombini for drinks and snacks on the way back to the hotel. Back in the room, sipping booze and eating rice crackers, my folks' cognitive dissonance spin machines were getting into gear: the hotel wasn't so bad really, it did the job, we've stayed in a lot worse before.

The next day's plan was Kobe, famed for it's premium beef and devastating 1995 earthquake. But before that, we had the excitement of the hotel's buffet breakfast. The Western and Eastern approaches to breakfast are rather dissimilar, and their collision usually tends to result in something entertainingly weird. I loaded my tray with rice, miso soup, nori (dried seaweed - you can use it to make improvised riceballs), salmon, sausages, whole little fish, pickled plums, sweet omelette, and other miscellaneous items. It was all a bit much for my parents, who stuck with toast, fruit salad, and yoghurt.

Deftly avoiding a train blunder (confusingly, 'Kobe Station' is nowhere near the city's CBD), we went straight for the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing loop bus. Now, I tend to be a little snooty about these things, as I don't like doing anything that's too overtly touristy. But my parents love them, and I have to concede, it was indeed a cheap and effective way to get around all the sights. Our first destination was a herb garden on a mountain overlooking the city. Kobe is a compact city, sandwiched between the sea to the south and steep mountains to the north. The place was accessed by cable car, so for the second time in 24 hours we found ourselves dangling in a perspex bubble, imagining the view we would be enjoying if it weren't for the clouds.

Predictably, the weather was even worse at the top, with visibility down to about 20m at times. We sheltered in the gift shop, allowing my parents to load up on horticultural / aromatic souvenirs. There were some indoor exhibits about herbs, spices, and perfumery, which mainly involved smelling various things. There was something surprisingly fun about this; one doesn't often get the opportunity to spend a morning subjecting oneself to pleasant olfactory stimuli. I'm not sure what my favourite smell is, but cinnamon would definitely be in my top 5.

With the rain showing no sign of stopping, we decided just to go for it and descend on foot, through the gardens. As we were getting soaked, and the flowers weren't really in bloom yet anyway, we didn't linger long. We did come across a big greenhouse with tropical plants, which made for a nice break. Further down, there was an impressive waterfall, but we were in no mood to dawdle - by this stage the contents of my wallet in my pocket were getting soggy.

Next stop was Chinatown for lunch and a wander around (the rain had subsided to a light drizzle), then we headed down for some more harbour action. We didn't really do anything at the harbour: there was a tower, but to my eye it didn't look tall enough to justify the asking price, and we also decided against taking a cruise around the bay on a garish pink galleon. So it was back to the loop bus once again, for a trip to Little Europe.

Kobe is unusually cosmopolitan for Japan, as it is the place where foreign merchants first started doing business. With their riches they built houses in the style of their homelands. The Japanese can't get enough of this, as they see Europe as having a dignified charm and mystique, rather symmetrical to how we tend to view them. Indeed, as we walked around we came across a Christian wedding, complete with a gaijin priest. Western-style weddings are gaining in popularity in Japan, illustrating the nation's fast-and-loose approach to religious rituals. There is a saying that Japanese people are born Shinto, marry Christian, and die Buddhist.

We had a quick look around a French-themed art gallery, which appeared to be named 'Line'. Only as I was leaving did I realise that 'Rhine' was the appropriate transliteration. We also had an overpriced 'spice tea' in a faux-Parisian cafe - it was quite a spice-heavy day, all in all.

Heading back into the city centre for the evening, we continued the European theme with a visit to a Belgian pub. As soon as you walk in the door of a place like this you know you are in for a fleecing, so you're best just to accept it and move on. Sure enough, we were given a little dish of nuts, which is kind of a symbolic gesture representing that there is a cover charge for entry. However, the place was undeniably nice, and I very much enjoyed my Leffe and Chimay.

After that it was time to get some food, which is always a little stressful for me as I am the only one who has any chance of reading the menus. Thus the decision of where to dine falls to me, which is a lot of responsibility. But on this occasion, I think I did rather well. We went to a gyoza (Chinese dumpling) bar. The menu (which was at least mercifully small) was entirely in kanji, even down to the numerals in the prices. This was not the sort of place your average tourist would be able to handle, but I pulled it off with aplomb. Furthermore, they were the best gyoza I've ever tasted.

Next time: Yet more rain, and the perfect day of sightseeing.

Friday, May 20, 2011

They are the passengers

From monday to thursday, the plan was that I would work as usual, leaving my parents to do their own thing during the day. After all the driving, sightseeing and boozing of the weekend, they were keen to just take it easy on monday. They spent the day tidying up, shopping at 100yen stores, and having coffee and cakes with Marie. Mum wasn't feeling very hungry that night, so Dad and I hit a 'family restaurant', like the one I sought refuge in on the night of March 11th. On paper, this should be an easy option for foreigners, as there is Western (ish) food available and the menu is all photographs. But there's something about these places that scrambles my brain - I think it's the sheer number of almost imperceptibly different Hamburg steak (a bunless burger)-based meals. You can have a Hamburg with two breaded king prawns, a Hamburg with one prawn and one piece of fried chicken, a Hamburg with cheese filling with two prawns, etc., etc. After about twenty minutes of deliberation, Dad went for a maverick Hamburg with aubergine, Japanese radish and beansprouts (though the aubergine was switched out for pumpkin due to quake-related supply problems). I had spaghetti.

The plan for tuesday was to take the train to Yonezawa, but it was wazzing down that day so they stayed at home and continued tidying. I must stress that I don't ask or expect them to do this, but I've found it's easiest just to let them get on with it. And I must say, they did a sterling job. That night we took a trip (in an unseasonal blizzard) to my favourite Japanese curry joint. What I particularly like about this place is that one can choose their desired level of spiciness on a 12-point scale (from -1 for the elderly, infirm, infants who have recently graduated to solid food, and Danny; to 10 for macho bellends and mentalists). I went for a 5 and spent the whole meal gulping down water and sweating rivers.

Wednesday being the day that Marie closes her shop, she and her husband arranged to take my parents for a day trip. I have only a vague idea of what they got up to, so I would like to take the unprecedented step of inviting a guest contribution to the blog from Dad (or Mum, but it seems like more of a Dad thing to do) to fill in the blanks. Anyway, that night we had been invited to a dinner party at the local Zen temple (rather like the one my friends attended last summer). As this was to be a slightly formal event, my parents grilled me with countless questions of etiquette: Is this shirt smart enough? Is this omiyage suitable? When should we hand over the whisky? This tried my patience a little, but I suppose I can't fault them for wanting to make a good impression. Of course, I had told them never to pour their own drinks, and that for bonus politeness points they should hold their glass with both hands when accepting a refill. My poor father followed this advice to the letter, but was nevertheless greeted with howls of laughter and exclamations of "Kawaii!" ("Cute!") for the childlike manner in which he offered his glass. To be fair, he did look like a 4-year-old requesting more orange squash.

Over dinner, the tardiness of the still-unblossomed sakura was lamented. Everyone felt it was a great shame that my parents would miss out on this iconic Nipponese experience, and so it was somehow decided that the following day, Shoko-chan and her husband would very kindly take my parents to Fukushima City, where the slightly milder climate had brought the flowers out already. Now, I know what you're thinking, and yes, at 60km from ground zero, Fukushima is within the stupidly over-conservative US evacuation zone. But of far greater concern to my parents was the fact that neither of their guides spoke a word of English. As we returned home that night, they were more than a little concerned at what they had let themselves in for.

Again, I'm not in a position to furnish you with the details, but apparently it went better than could reasonably have been expected (I think they made quite a lot of use of Marie as a telephone translator), and by all accounts Fukushima's Hanamiyama Park was beautiful. Thursday being their last night in Nanyo, Marie wasn't going to let my parents leave without one last party. So after she had closed the shop for the night, and I had returned from my Japanese evening class, we headed to our local izakaya (Japanese pub/bistro). Though I was fairly shattered, I managed to get into the spirit, as I was now finally on my holidays too. But fatigue was starting to set in for Mum, and I think her digestive system was complaining about the gastronomic shock it had been subjected to for the previous week. Without being rude in any way, she managed to convey that she wasn't really up for it, and Marie laid off the overzealous hospitality for once. I was impressed; I've got to learn that trick.

Returning home, we found that Blair was on Skype, so we chatted to him for a while, until I was branded a killjoy for responsibly insisting at about 1am that we call it a night, as we had a plane to catch the next morning. Sure enough, I was feeling a bit sluggish as we powered up the highway (in as much as a Wagon R with broken suspension can power anywhere) to Yamagata's pathetic little airport.

Next time: the Stewarts hit Kansai, and it rains.

Meanwhile, back in the present: Tonight I'm going to spend my first ever night in a ryokan, a traditional Japanese up-market inn. The Great Quake and its various knock-on disasters have really put a crimp on the tourist industry around here, so everywhere is offering big discounts to entice the punters back. This ryokan has cut its prices by about 50%, bringing it (just) into the price range of a bunch of ALTs. I'm excited!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

I'm starting with the man in the miira

(Miira means 'mummy' in Japanese, though the word in fact comes from Portuguese.)

I know, I know, this is way overdue. I haven't posted in over a month, in which time both my parents and the sakura have come and gone, and summer has pretty much arrived, bringing with it pollen and insects. Aside from the obvious benefit of facilitating snowboarding, there's a lot to be said for having a metre of snow on the ground at all times.

So why the holdup? To be honest, I just haven't really felt like blogging lately. As my man Holden Caulfield says, you have to be in the mood for these things. Maybe it's because my last flurry of posts were all related to the Great Earthquake (as people are now calling it, although usually in Japanese), and it seems a bit pedestrian to go back to covering my life in again-sleepy Yamagata after all that drama. Also, I've kind of got it in my head that I have more of an audience after the quake; though this is my hundred-and-somethingth post, I feel a bit like a briefly popular band tackling their difficult second album right now. And I guess there were some post-holiday blues too; after my parents' visit, and my little camping trip during Golden Week (it'll be a while until I get round to telling you about that), I just felt a bit out-of-sorts.

Anyway, the time has come to stop being a navel-gazing ponce and get on with it, so I'll belatedly tell you about my folks coming to Yamagata for their second time. They arrived on friday, the intercontinental journey having gone better than they could possibly have hoped for, as they had been upgraded to business class for the flight. I kicked things off with a kaitenzushi dinner, my dad trying the 'whale bacon' but balking at the raw horse.

After much discussion, it was decided that Saturday's destination should be the history-rich Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. Yes, Fukushima. It's a pretty big prefecture, and this particular part of it is scarcely any closer to Daiichi than my house is. Driving through the mountains, we bagged an early monkey sighting. Also during the drive, my dad (who was sitting in the back) proffered the opinion that there was something amiss with my suspension.

First stop was the castle. Like so many in Japan, it is not the original structure but a modern reproduction - the conflict that brought about the unification of Japan and the end of the feudal age claimed most of the castles. Nevertheless, it was an interesting enough place to visit, as its interior was essentially a museum. Whilst browsing the exhibits, we felt an aftershock strong enough to make the projected displays go all wobbly. Of course, this is nothing to a seismic connoisseur like myself, but this grade 2 was my parents' first earthquake, and so they greeted it with some excitement. (The big one was a '5+' where I was.)

After a quick 500yen fleecing for a disappointing 'tea ceremony' (someone handing you a tray of green teas and mochi cakes does not constitute a tea ceremony - we weren't even kneeling!) we headed to a reconstructed samurai residence. This too was pretty good, though the owners had felt the need to liven it up with mannequins depicting dramatic scenes from the place's past, such as the lady of the house killing herself and her children rather than being taken hostage by the invading forces. (If there's one thing the Japanese love, it's a noble suicide.) The trouble was, they hadn't got the faces right. I know the Japanese tend to conceal their emotions, but I'm guessing the matriarch didn't have quite the same tranquil expression as the mannequin just before she kiri'd her hara.

Following a quick stop at my mum's favourite gyuudon chain Sukiya (where we were accosted by a crazy old lady - I've got to get better at pretending I don't understand any Japanese), we headed back home, as we had a shabu shabu engagement with my quasi-supervisor and my Anglophile retired archaeologist friend. Dad made an early blunder by walking on the tatami with slippers on. Lots of omiyage was exchanged, and a thoroughly enjoyable evening was had by all. However, my parents later revealed that although they had liked the food, they found the process of cooking it themselves in the cauldron on the table a little tiresome. I suppose I can see where they're coming from, particularly as using chopsticks is still a bit of a struggle for them.

On sunday we went the opposite direction, going through even more mountains on the way to north-west Yamagata prefecture. The frost and/or the snow-chains of winter had taken their toll on the roads, which had some mean potholes. In the back once again, Dad was not having a good time. Actually I'm currently driving a courtesy car (a slightly newer and marginally less crappy Wagon R), having put mine into the garage to get this sorted. Anyway, we eventually made it to a remote little temple in the mountains, famed for being home to a sokushinbutsu, an adherent of a particularly weird variant of Buddhism who literally mediated himself to death, mummifying himself in the process. It truly is a remarkable thing to do, involving deliberately starving and poisoning oneself gradually over a period of six years before being entombed alive, such that one's corpse will be preserved without any kind of embalming. The practice was more-or-less exclusive to Yamagata (it doesn't happen anymore, thankfully), and thus is probably the most interesting thing the prefecture has going for it.

Now, the information I just gave you came from researching the subject after the fact, because when we arrived at the temple we were ushered in to join the guided tour which a genial priest had evidently just started giving. It was of course in Japanese, and went on for about half an hour, during which time I managed to extract only about 20% of what he was trying to tell us. This is quite a low hit-rate for me these days, but he was a) talking quickly, b) seemed to have quite a local accent, and most importantly c) I'm not to up on my mummification vocab. To be fair, he chatted to me one-on-one for a bit at the end, adopting a more foreigner-friendly delivery, and I fared rather better. Anyway, after this prolonged build-up, we got what we came for when he drew back the curtain to reveal a shriveled but remarkably intact sitting figure, decked out in what stuck me as an inappropriately flashy colourful robe. Later on, Mum inexplicably offered the opinion that self-mummification wasn't that big a deal, because "he was old anyway". I couldn't believe what I was hearing; you don't have to approve of what the guy did - I'd describe it as misguided, at best - but any way you look at it it's surely impressively hardcore? Marlo wasn't having it.

Next up was Zempou-ji, a beautiful temple with a five-story pagoda. It also boasted the ancillary attraction of a pond inhabited by 'human-faced carp', which we felt we had to check out. We were rather underwhelmed; it seemed they were human faced in that they had one mouth and two eyes, but that was about it. But to be honest, we probably got more enjoyment out of laughing about how spurious the claim was than we would have done if every single fish had been a dead ringer for, say, Adrian Chiles.

After that we briefly stopped off at the beach. Living as I do up in the mountains about 70km inland, I often forget that Yamagata actually has a coastline with beaches. Dad and I spent some time attempting to divert a small stream that was running across the sand, just as we did together at Loch Earn when I was about six. I found it hard not to imagine a 10-metre wave rolling in from the sea and destroying everything though. Then it was time for the long drive home, and more socialising, this time at Marie's.

That seems like a good place to leave it for this installment. Next time: the most awkward cherry blossom viewing ever.