Saturday, March 20, 2010

Japan Memoirs in Haiku

Did you miss me? (Pretend you did.) Still a little tired and jet lagged, it's still good to be back home in Yellowknife. If you're interested, some highlights of my family's trip to Japan are below. Being the geek that I am, I jotted down a haiku each day while I was there. It's no secret that I love haiku, but I came to appreciate the form even more, especially as a travel journal. Trying to determine key moments of each day, made me more reflective. And, instead of taking time out of vacation to write long, tedious journal entries, I was able to work on haiku in my head while riding trains and so on, but the short lines I came up with, conjure up so many more memories for me. I know they're not up there with Basho, so no need to point that out. So now, sit back, relax, and travel Japan aboard the bad haiku express:

March 9

Through taxi windows
rainy snow slides down white cheeks
Shibuya billboards

Shortly after arriving in Japan, exhausted but excited, we found ourselves in a taxi driving through one of the busiest parts of Tokyo: Shibuya. The weather wasn't great (in fact, not much different than the Yellowknife we'd left two days earlier) but that wasn't getting me down. I was, however, disappointed in the billboards. Not that there were so many-- we'd seen enough pictures of Tokyo to expect those-- but that so many featured Caucasian faces. Blonde hair, blue eyes. Japanese people aren't attractive enough? I was a little nervous that I'd suffer culture shock in Tokyo, but would have preferred that to this familiarity. I was tired, remember. And fortunately, after a good night's sleep, the rest of the trip was amazing, despite the bad first impression.

March 10

At the shrine, drizzle.
Traditional bride and groom
walk past new green grass.

Shibuya Intersection
Skirts, scarves and raincoats.
A million are crossing
A million wait.

As we'd soon discover, there are Shinto shrines all over Japan. We took in several and were more than pleased to see that photos in front of their iconic torii gates were acceptable. And, as luck would have it, we were also privy to a traditional wedding procession during our first shrine visit.

We also visited (and survived) the famous Shibuya Crossing. Some sources call it the busiest intersection in the world, having up to a million people that cross it everyday. Certainly not for anyone with a fear of crowds, but we found it to be sheer fun madness. "Kids, when that light changes, hang on!" We also went to the world's busiest Starbucks. Not because we wanted to see the world's busiest Starbucks, but because it has a great view of the masses passing by.

March 11

In muddy rain boots
standing beside a hot spring
while snow monkeys bathe

A certain change of pace from Shibuya, on this day we took a train ride to Yudanaka to see the snow monkeys. What an amazing experience this was. It's up there with seeing the polar bears of Churchill, Manitoba, for sure. North of Tokyo, there was still snow on the ground and we hiked about 2 kilometers through a very Canadian feeling woods until we came to a spectacular valley of hot springs and monkeys, hundreds of monkeys. And monkey babies. Adorable monkey babies. Scampering by, literally over our feet, it was possible to reach down and touch one (though I value my fingers too much to have tried that). They make snowballs, chase one another through the snow, and then warm up in a hot spring. Pretty good life they have, I must say.

Then we stayed at the most charming hotel, the Shimaya Ryokan. The owner, who had driven us to the monkey park, and came back to pick us up, was amazingly sweet to us and our kids. When we asked for supper suggestions, he took us to a quiet little noodle house. Afterward, not wanting to bother him any more, we asked our waitress to call us a taxi but she insisted that the cook drive us back instead, and so he did! The whole town was friendly! One minor disappointment: next door to the Shimaya Ryokan was a museum of haiku, but it was closed.

March 12
To the left as I
tread past lights rides popcorn stands,
a boy, a mallard.

I know, I know. Why go all the way to Japan, if you're just going to do something as American as Disneyland? Well, keep in mind, we were traveling with two young kids and we had ten days left for Japanese culture. Besides, I was interested in seeing the Japanese take on American culture. Apparently, the park is almost identical to the one in California. Tokyo being my first Disney experience, I can't say if that's true, but it's certainly believable. Even the actors playing Alice, Peter Pan, Cinderella, and the like were white. Would it kill them to have a Japanese Alice? Despite that, and despite my reservations about big corporations and globalization, I had a good time. My daughter no longer wants to be astronaut, thanks to a panic attack on Space Mountain. But the electric parade at the end was cool in a kitschy psychedelic way.

One small difference: Stitch. Remember the little blue alien from Lilo & Stitch? Certainly not one of Disney's cash cows on this side of the Pacific, but holy crow is he ever huge in Japan. At Disneyland itself, he's as big a draw as Mickey Mouse and off the park, you can't go anywhere without finding Stitch souvenirs. Second only to Hello Kitty. Apparently he has his own anime cartoon in Japan, set on a Japanese island rather than Hawaii and Lilo has been replaced by Yuna, but I don't know if the show is the cause of his Japanese fame, or rather a response to it.

The haiku is about a young boy feeding a mallard through a cast iron fence. I wasn't expecting a duck not wearing a sailor's suit to be at Disneyland. My dad raised ducks when I was a child and that scene brought back more childhood memories than all the cartoons and the thrill of amusement parks. Nice.

March 13
Shrill scream from upstairs,
the floor beneath my futon
shifts. My kids cuddle.

Back in the fall, just about everyone in Yellowknife thought they'd felt a small earthquake. The news even reported it as such, initially. It turned out to be a planned explosion at one of the old mine sites. It registered at about 1.0 on the Richter scale. I could no longer say that I'd experienced my first earthquake. Now I can. A 5.7 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of Japan that was felt in Tokyo city. Earlier that day, as we felt the wind shake the floor of the top observation deck at the Tokyo Tower, I'd commented that I'd not want to be up that high during an earthquake. There was no damage reported and the next day, while we were out of the city, they apparently felt an even bigger quake, but again and fortunately, no damage reported.

It was scary to wake up to an earthquake, but seeing my kids across the room sleeping through it, and simply rolling a little closer to one another, was comforting. Not as comforting as not finding us all buried beneath tonnes of steel and concrete, but comforting nonetheless.

March 14

Twisting and pinching--
the balloon artist's fingers
in Hiroshima

After a long train ride, we arrived in Hiroshima and decided to hold off the Peace Memorial Park until the next day. To appease the kids, we went to a McDonald's. Disney, Starbucks, and Walmart. I'm the worst anti-capitalist in the world. I even shop at Walmart. By the way, the Japanese McDonald's menu isn't (not surprisingly) vastly different than in North America, though they have an option of corn instead of fries, and while we were in Japan, they were promoting four "American burgers": the Californian, the Texan, the New Yorker, and the Hawaiian. I had the Hawaiian, which has an egg on it; about right as eggs seemed to top everything in Hawaii (though when I went to Hawaii, McDonald's had a McSpam burger, so the Japanese at least knew where to draw the line.) Halfway through my meal, it occurred to me that it might be insensitive to be eating American food in Hiroshima, but looking around at the number of locals there, it didn't seem to be an issue.

As for the balloon artist, he was another way to treat the kids after a long day traveling and before what would promise to be a very somber day tomorrow. Set up on the sidewalk in very popular covered shopping/entertainment district, it was good to experience life in Hiroshima. People having fun. Not something you usually think of when someone mentions the place, is it?

March 15

Black skeletal limbs
adorned with budding green leaves.
Behind, bombed remains.

What to say about the Peace Memorial Park. It's very well-done. It's, of course, an emotional experience. Our kids took in most of the sights but were most interested in the story of Sadako, including the monument and the cases upon cases of paper cranes and wishes for world peace sent in from kids all over the world. There was one exhibit in the museum that we didn't expose them to, which featured images of people with flesh melting off their arms and faces among other horrific scenes. Obviously important images, but at our kids ages, I think it would have been too much. We talked a lot that day about the bomb, wars, and why people hurt one another. Our daughter cried at a model of the city before and after being flattened. And that was enough for them, the rest would have been nightmare material. I think what I liked most about the park was the equal emphasis on the future. There was a huge push on nuclear disarmament and world peace, using the lessons from the past as a starting point.

March 16

Lone red sun above
Two sumos bent face to face
Grains of salt below

The sumo wrestling tournament in Osaka was a very surreal experience, something so Japanese it was like walking into a travel guide. Shown to our seats, we found ourselves sitting shoeless on four pillows in a small family sized-square. While the matches themselves were very short (I don't think any lasted for than a minute once the two giants ran at one another), the build up and ceremony was just as impressive. I'm sure there was much we didn't understand but it was wonderful to just take in.

And while we there our daughter became a celebrity of sorts. Wanting to dress up in her kimono that she'd bought back in Tokyo, hundreds of spectators waved to her or asked to take her picture, some even wanting her to pose with them. She lapped it up. Fortunately it doesn't seem to have gone to her head and she hasn't been signing autographs for her Barbies or anything.

March 17

Down a grey alley
Past cherry-blossom lined streams
slip three young geisha

Driving into Kyoto, we first didn't see what the appeal was, despite just about everyone suggesting that it was a must see. But then we walked around and understood. Kyoto has managed to be traditional and trendy at the same time. A little too popular amongst tourists, such as ourselves, it was a bizarre experience to know that so many of us were there to see the geisha. What makes it even stranger is that there are so few of them left, and those that are there usually entertain at a price many of us simply can't afford. So, your only hope is to spot one walking to a private function. According to our hotel operator, they're usually spotted between the hours of 4-6pm. I felt like we were trying to see the elusive big foot or the Lochness monster or something. We walked around, admiring the cherry trees that were, lucky for us, in bloom about a month earlier than normal, and dropping into to stores here or there, but we couldn't spy any geisha. Then we found a karaoke restaurant, and how can you not go to karaoke while in Japan? What made it even cooler was that it was like the one in Lost in Translation where you rent private rooms to eat and sing. So even if we didn't find a geisha, we'd always have memories of butchering Queen and the Beatles. But then, on the way back to our hotel, Debbie looked down an alley and shouted "geisha!" We were off like the slimy stalker paparazzi that we are, and managed to get their picture with the kids. Fortunately we were the only ones and the other hordes were roaming hopelessly in some other part of the city. They were quiet, of course, and pretty in an ornamental sort of way, and young. Two teachers were with them, instructing them how to hold their kimonos and tilt their heads and so on. I justify our boorish intrusion by telling myself that we provided them with practice in posing gracefully. (And how many chances do you get in life to stick your snotty kids in front of real live geisha?)

March 18

Twinkling threatening eyes
of my son in ninja garb.
A brief sun peeks through.

If the sumo tournament was my daughter's day to shine, today was my son's. Visiting a Japanese movie studio/ theme park was a thrill, even if it was a cash grab (the entrance fee pays for NOTHING else inside). It was a much needed antidote to Tokyo Disneyland, offering up Japanese culture instead of heavy western influences. From samurai to the Super Sentai (adapted in the U.S. as the Power Rangers), it was highlighted by a make-up team decking up (paying) customers in costume to walk around the park. My son, all 3 feet 2 inches of him, was dressed in a ninja costume and found himself posing for just about everyone who had a camera (and this was in a Japanese theme park, if you recall). He also found himself combating anyone else with a sword who happened to be walking by. Since this was a school day, most of those happened to be twice his height (well, not quite-- still Japan), which of course, led to even more photos and video coverage. My kids, the hams.

I'm not normally comfortable posting pictures of my kids, but this one's pretty safe! Besides, he's a freaking ninja. You don't want to mess with a ninja.

March 19

Lugging luggage up
the stairs, sweating in my down
coat. Time to go home.

Everyone warned us to pack lightly for Japan. Packing lightly has never been our greatest skills as travelers, but threats of few elevators and over packed trains gave Debbie the super ability to cram enough for a family of four for eleven days into a single suitcase. We didn't account for souvenirs. What souvenirs does one bring back from Japan? Why loads and loads of wacky flavored KitKat bars, of course.

Some are wackier than others. In Canada, I've come across peanut butter, caramel, and even a banana flavoured KitKat, I believe. From the top left, here are the flavours above: soy sauce, sweet potato, cantaloupe (incidentally, the only real cantaloupe we could find in Japan cost $45 and up!), cherry blossom green tea, apple, citrus, intense roast soy bean, corn, kobe dessert, Japanese chili pepper, green tea, strawberry, purple sweet potato, cheesecake, and of course, wasabi. It became a game for us to hunt down the most outrageous flavours. I was reminded of my trip to London when I tasted potato chips flavoured like cajun squirrel and fish and chips. By the way, to my cat Pandora's disappointment, we couldn't find any fish flavoured KitKats. Surprising really.

As for the down coat, as you've gathered above the weather in Japan at springtime is much like the weather in Canada at springtime: unpredictable. The down was good while visiting the snow monkeys, but not on days when it hit 20°C. But when you leave your hotel in the morning and it's freezing, you have little choice but to carry it with you.

Anyway, while it was a tiring last day and long journey home, we had an amazing vacation. I can't recommend Japan highly enough. It's fun, it's clean, there's so much variety, the people are so nice, it's safe, not as difficult to navigate as you might think, and not as expensive as everyone makes it out to be (keep in mind, I've lived in northern Canada for the past 9 years so everything is relative). In some ways, it was as different as we imagined it would be. In some ways, much less. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto.


Chrisbookarama said...

Loved reading about your adventures in Japan! Sounds like you fell down the rabbit hole yourself in Disneyland. Why wouldn't they have a Japanese Alice? Weird.

I loved the ninja pic. So cute. And congrats on spotting a geisha and surviving an earthquake.

Wanda said...

Welcome back! Bummer to be so close to a haiku museum and not be able to check it out. Love the snow monkeys! Sounds like a great time was had by the whole family, thanks for sharing some high(and low)lights with us.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I was thinking of you bunch when I heard about the earthquake in Japan, and wondered if you had experienced it. How nice of them to arrange that for you!

What an amazingly jam-packed trip you had. I really need to sit down with your crew over a meal and a couple of bottles of wine in order to ask all the questions I have.

John Mutford said...

Chris: Especially weird when it seemed like half the teenage girls in Tokyo seemed to dress like Alice.

Wanda: Can you imagine how many comments in their visitor's book were written in crappy haiku? But how could you not?

Barbara: As luck would have it, I've been drinking wine all day. So ask away. Just be prepared for far-fetched responses, insults, and stinky burps.

raidergirl3 said...

What an amazing trip. It would never have occurred to me to go to Japan on a trip, but you saw so many wonderful, iconic things. Love the idea that you went to Disney there.And the haikus are a perfect way to summarize the trip.

John Mutford said...

Raidergirl: Oddly, Japan was never on my list of considerations either. However, Debbie's cousin, who lives in Tokyo, suggested that we visit, and the seeds were planted. We ended up only staying in Tokyo a few short days (with her cousin's family, an amazingly sweet family), and visiting the rest of Japan on our own, but now I don't know why more people from Canada don't consider it. I'd recommend Japan as a travel destination for anyone. Old, young, single, couples. I don't know who wouldn't enjoy it there.