Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A New Mexican Experiences Japan

Imagine a country …

Where taxi drivers are polite, wear white gloves, drive shiny undented cars, cover seats in lacy white doilies.

Where there is no litter! Although public garbage cans are not common. You’re responsible for your own garbage; pack it in; pack it out.

Where vending machines are everywhere, outside, inside, providing everything from hot coffee in a can to Asahi beer to a soda called Pocari Sweat to canned pancakes.

Where toilet seats are heated, even in outdoor facilities. If desired, they’ll also wash your bottom and play music!

Where nearly every square inch of land not devoted to housing, shops, transportation, or industry is planted with vegetables, rice, fruit trees.

Where there are no farm animals in sight, at least not in the rural areas we visited;few cats and dogs.

Where old cars are rare. They’ve been shipped to third-world countries.

Where supermarkets are filled with a wide variety of mysterious, unidentifiable foods. Everything wrapped in plastic, even single bananas and squashes;

Where coffee is excellent, even in hotel restaurants. Coffee shops abound.

Where men still smoke a lot. Most restaurants have no smoking areas. A no smoking room in a hotel means you don’t smoke in it, although previous guests certainly have.

Where public transportation works! Trains and busses run on time! Train stations are clean, trains are clean, even the loos.

Where there are no homeless people in sight; few drunks or crazies; low unemployment, a work ethic that is often stressful, especially for salaried people.

Where people are well-dressed. The teeny-bopper girls’ outfits—short dresses, high boots, cutesy dingle-dangles, fake fur, and stuffed animals—are sometimes hilarious, even a little kinky.

Where thievery and other crimes are rare; women are not hassled, and can walk around at night; you can ship jewelry and valuables in your luggage with no worries.

Where you eat salad greens for breakfast! Fresh and tasty! Probably from the garden out back.

Where people are honest, well-paid, helpful, welcoming, trustworthy, and eager to try out their English with you.

Where there is no tipping!

Where fat people are a rarity. Even very elderly people walk, take busses and trains, ride bicycles. Older women, bent at right angles from osteoporosis, are numerous; this may possibly as a result of wartime and postwar food shortages.

Except for a two-year sojourn in western Europe, much of my overseas touristing has been in third-world countries. My folk art import business has taken me to Central and South America. I’ve studied and worked in Mexico City, rural Venezuela, and western Germany. I’ve been to Tibet and Timbuktu, Kansas and Kenya, Cambodia and Canada. I haven’t been everywhere, but then, I’m not dead yet!

Thanks to the careful planning and experience of Nancy Craft of Esprit Travel and Gail Rieke from Santa Fe, and the outstanding tour guiding of Steve Beimel (a paragon of patience), my trip this fall was one of the most fascinating of my life. It was also an easy trip, with time to wander, wonder, ponder.

The sophistication and futuristic architecture of Tokyo were mind-blowing, but I was especially pleased to spend time in rural areas, staying in cozy traditional minka farmhouses in tidy mountain villages, eating delish home-cooking, enjoying fall colors everywhere, taking long walks, photographing everything in sight.

People were surprised to see us in areas rarely visited by foreigners—the ancient Nakasendo pilgrims’ Road, Omoricho town, other small villages. 

The knowledge Gail and Steve imparted throughout our trip about Japanese aesthetics, history, and customs constituted an intensive seminar in a culture of which I was completely ignorant. The time we spent with ordinary people, musicians, artisans, was fascinating.  Our visits to museums, shrines, textile designers, a monastery, artist’s studios, and shops were delightful. As the daughter of a paper manufacturer, it was a treat to make washi (mulberry)paper in the time-honored manner with guidance from skilled artisans using the most basic of methods. My teacher shook my hand when she learned I was from a paper-making family, then sang the papermakers’ song and did a folk dance related to the craft.

I didn’t think there would be anything affordable to buy in Japan, especially with the dollar at an all-time low versus the yen. Hah! Beautiful used silk kimono in perfect shape for $12? Colorful washi paper goods, scraps of old textiles, whacky toys, handmade pottery, kitchen knives, antique baskets—my luggage bulged.

The group of fellow travelers put together by Gail was a delightful crew. We shared lots of laughs, enthusiasm, openness, a spirit of adventure, and plenty of local sake.

So…where do I sign up for my next trip to Japan?

photos 2010 © Martha Egan

1 comment:

  1. Marta - I have to agree: even as a seasoned world traveler Japan somehow manages to throw you! It is so very different and awe inspiring. Lovely post!