TAKING IN THE SIGHTS IN JAPAN’S SAN MIGUEL

Trip Start Apr 28, 2010
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Trip End Oct 15, 2010


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Flag of Japan  , Chubu,
Sunday, May 30, 2010

With our Woofer days behind us, we boarded the morning bus for the one-hour ride through some of the most magnificent mountains I'd ever seen. Many even put Switzerland to shame…and that’s saying a lot.

About Woofing, well, we don’t think we’d mind doing the 'pension’ thing of dish-washing and bed-changing but ‘real’ Woofing of helping on a farm, um, we’ll get back to you on that. Rie told us that her Woofers told her stories of 4 am wake-up calls, working all day in the fields and, on rare days off, discovering that you’re living on a, well, farm; ie, in the middle of nowhere with nothing to do. Maybe, maybe, if a farm had a specialty I really wanted to learn about, I could do it but otherwise I think I can understand the complaint, as the WW1 song put it ‘how you gonna keep them down on the farm, after they’ve seen Paree?’

So we’re back to playing typical tourist. Yaya’s become enamored of all the free samples on offer at tourist shops, little bits of tasty cookies and pickles offered to entice one to pick up an ‘omiagi’ for friends who didn’t have the chance to travel. She was so busy making the rounds at the bus station that we almost missed our but to Takayama (a 3 hour wait) but came flying into the bus still licking her fingers at the last moment. I found it easy to forgive as she’d brought me an especially nice tidbit too. Whadda gal!

As has been the case throughout Japan, an English-speaking info office was waiting us at the Takayama bus/train station and their very complete English map showed us the way to ‘J-Hoppers Hostel’. Yaya was even able to pick one up in Espanol and I noticed them in French, Korean and Chinese too to give you an idea of who visits the place.

As we trundled our packs, big one in back, daypack in front down the street, the resident Japanese seemed inured to the sight of foreign tortoises ambling down their sidewalks. I recounted to Yaya how 20 years ago, seeing a white person on the street, any street, would evince cries of ‘gaijin, gaijin’ from astonished school kids but now, clearly, we were old news. As usual, the streets were uncrowded and the people we saw were generally quite aged.

The hostel seemed to reflect the aging of Japan as well, I thought. Not really a typical ‘youth hostel’, the Japanese version is more of a ‘shared hotel’ where about $27 gets you a nice bunk but $33 per person gets you a ‘double’. Our room, like others we’ve had, is Japanese style, which means tatami floors and futon for sleeping on the floor. Like most gaijin, we commit the faux-pas of leaving our bedding on the floor for our entire stay, rather than properly stowing it in closets during the day.

J-Hoppers is a slick operation that is sure to expand from their hostels here and in Nagoya and Osaka. As far as I could see, they have only one staff member, critical in labor-short Japan. Guests are told to drop off their dirty sheets at the front on their way out and rooms are cleaned only for check-in. But then, room rates don’t get any cheaper than this in Japan.

Again, I think about Japan’s population problem. I think a fair analogy would be to a very successful corporation. Imagine one that, because of their success, was reluctant to hire new people because the new-hires might be ‘different’ and not really fit in or understand the ‘corporate culture’, being outsiders. And so, employees simply age and retire, leaving a serious shortage of workers at the entry level. Japan is the only developed country I’ve seen where one doesn’t encounter immigrants in service positions, starting modestly as they work their way up the economic ladder. My Russian friend, a legal resident, would be happy to work in a ‘dollar store’ but, she believes, is discriminated against for being ‘different’. I myself noticed how Ten Gallon guests reacted when Rie presented Yaya and me as ‘staff’: a slight gasp of surprise.

Japanese young people aren’t particularly interested, it seems, in getting on the system’s hamster-wheel of hard work for minimal payoff. They are increasingly refusing to join companies where they’re often overworked, underpaid and belittled by their superiors. Having children is an immense expense with the government only covering education through junior high school. Good luck making a living in education-crazy Japan with only that skill set. And so Japan, as a nation, borrows and borrows from its own people to keep the ship of state afloat, as it lazily drifts toward the rocks of unsustainability.

Yaya is along to keep me from dwelling too long on such morbid stuff and her delight in all things Nipponese keeps me out of the dark side. Dropping off our bags and pronouncing J-Hoppers as the best digs yet, we hit the ‘old town’, a beautifully preserved bit of 19th Century Japan, streets lined with wooden homes, most converted to selling gifts, knick-knacks and, of special interest to this gaijin, high-end sake.

The good stuff, you see, like the sake made with the spectacularly clear waters of Takayama, is only meant to be drunk cold. As was explained to us at a tasting in one shop, warming the sake is how one hides the fact that it’s not very good. "Gekkeikan" (about the only stuff you can buy in the States) is thought of here as rot-gut, fit only for unsophisticated pallets. Do try to find another brand sometime if possible; the difference is striking and will spoil you forever.

Yaya and I decided we like ‘karakuchi’ which, as opposed to ‘amakuchi’ is of higher alcohol content and less sweet. (‘Gekkeikan’ must be off the ‘amakuchi’ charts; it’s that sweet.) Asking around, we learned of some discount stores a few blocks away and set off to pick up some things, including what the ‘Value Liquor’ manager assured me was the most popular ‘karakuchi’ he sells. Good stuff indeed!

Also in the area was my personal favorite shopping option, the ‘100-yen store’. As mentioned in earlier entries, this has been our budget-saver, with a vast array of high-quality (well, OK-quality) stuff that otherwise would cost literally 5 or 10 times as much. Today’s example: one of the first casualties of the trip was my good sandals which I conveniently forgot in the shoebox at Kimi Ryokan in Tokyo. Vowing not to pay Japanese prices for a replacement when we’ll be in Hong Kong in a few weeks, I thought, hmm, might it be possible to find something at the 100-yen shop? I’m now comfortably walking around the streets of Takayama in plastic sandals that should hold up for, well, who cares? They only cost me about a buck. The cheapest made-in-Japan alternative: about $15. Now you see why China is eating Japan’s export lunch?

I’m happy to see that Yaya is as taken by Takayama as I was, years ago when I discovered it and vowed to bring my lady-love here. Today, Sunday, should be even better as the weekenders head home to Osaka and Nagoya, leaving the tourist streets to us gaijin. The pricey handicrafts are just stunning in their detail and beauty. Yaya has announced that we should convert one room of our home into a ‘Japanese room’ with Japanalia and I happily comply; it’s always been my intention someday. But how to ship the stuff over?

Yaya wanted veggies for dinner, lots and lots of veggies which, surprisingly, were in short supply at Ten Gallon which served us mostly great meat, chicken and fish. The discount grocery store had loads of prepared Japanese food which gave us a yummy repast for a fraction of what a restaurant would charge: sushi for her, noodles and grilled mackerel for me. An assortment of pickled vegetables gave Yaya her veggie fix.

Fortified by a couple of slugs of our excellent sake, I announced it was ‘ofuro’ time but Yaya decided instead to work on her own blog, which we know, many of you have been waiting to read. (Newsflash: it’s now up and can be seen, if you didn’t get an invitation, by searching for it at www.travelpod.com, username “Yayasime”.)

One way J-Hoppers cuts costs is to offer only showers but I’ve been spoiled and must have my hot soak nightly. Fortunately, the front desk told us, a ‘sento’ or public bath was only about 3 blocks away. This dying breed was once common as rice in Japan as few homes could afford to heat their own bath or had the space for it. Today, everybody’s got an ‘ofuro’ or tub at home; another loss for the Japanese culture I love.

The ‘sento’, like the resort ‘onsen’ (a deluxe ofuro usually featuring therapeutic minerals) insists that all washing take place outside the pool with the hot water being used strictly for clean relaxation. Nothing gripes a Japanese more than seeing a gaijin jump right into the communal pool without properly scrubbing himself before.

Plunking down my 400 yen with the girl at the counter who, ala the custom, sits between the men’s and women’s entrances, I muttered just enough Japanese to her to assure her that yes, I knew the rules. Still, eyebrows went up when I entered the changing room and disrobed.

One has the option to use the provided hand-shower or scoop hot water out of the pool to wash outside. Being fundamentally lazy, I usually opt for the shower, finishing the cleaning part in a minute or two, being sure to rinse off all the soap. (Japanese, on the other hand, can scrub away at themselves for literally half an hour. Why? You’ll have to ask them.) ‘Sento’ are known for being on the hot side and this one was almost too much for me. Happily, I forced myself in and in a few seconds was pleasantly melted. Bubbles percolated around me, allowing the ‘sento’ to bill itself as a ‘jacuzzi’, something I actually didn’t like, much preferring the stillness of a truly traditional Japanese bath which, in my mind, is intended to be serene.

I knew all eyes were on me to see if I knew how to behave myself but, satisfied that the white guy was OK, I was generally ignored. I noticed there was no conversation among the 8 or so guys in the bath, surprising, I thought, since I was fairly sure most were regulars. Maybe, I wondered, going to a neighborhood sento is thought low-class now, suggesting that one doesn’t have the money to put a proper ofuro in one’s own home? Or were all these guys just transients like me?

FYI, one finds very, very few mixed-sex ofuro, onsen or sento in Japan. Hey, despite what one hears about how ‘enlightened’ the Japanese are sexually, boys will be boys and ogling occurs. I’ve seen it, and Japanese women like it as little as do Western women. The only mixed-use sento I ever encountered was in a tiny village inhabited only by truly ancient oldsters who won’t soon be getting invites from either Playboy or Playgirl. In my Takayama sento, as with most, a low (but high enough) wall separated the sexes, letting us hear each other but nothing more.

But this is Japan, land of complexity and so, even the same-sex bathing ban has its, um, exceptions. Here I thought I’d figured things out years ago when, to my surprise, into the men’s locker room strolled a woman, oblivious of the flesh on display. On inspection, I saw that she was a cleaning woman, old, an quite uninterested in us magnificent specimens of manhood. She actually kept bent over, looking intently at the floor as she swept around the corners of the room and picked up the odd scrap. The men ignored her totally and she obviously expected to be invisible. So, I wondered, are old geezers allowed to clean the women’s side like that? Umm, unlikely.
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Comments

George on

When I worked in Japan (Tokyo) 10-15 years ago, even just walking alone on the streets (in stores, subways, etc.), I'd hear 'gaijin' hurled at me with derision, under many a breath. But, like with any prejudice, in every country, I ascribe such invectives to a small, hopefully dying-off segment, wanting to believe the majority of the population were fighting to mend their ways.

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