Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Bathrooms in Japan

Bathrooms are great fun here - even public toilets. They are super clean and most of them have a control panel that rivals that of an airplane. But what is the bathroom etiquette here?

First of all, if you are in a private house you have to change from your house slippers into the toilet slippers that are provided inside the toilet. No joke!

If you are lucky, you will then find a Western-style toilet. Sit down on it and here comes the next surprise - the toilet seat will be heated. Even in public toilets!

When you are done with your business comes the tricky part. Where is the flush button? There are so many buttons on the control panel... Usually it is on the water tank behind the toilet. You push it - and then next surprise. Water will be running into a sort of wash basin above the flush tank. Wonderful example for saving water: You are washing your hands in the water that will be filling the flush tank!

You then hopefully do not forget to change back into your house slippers and start dreaming of your next wonderful bathroom experience in Japan.

There is only one problem: How will I ever be able to live again without heated toilet seats?

Friday, 15 May 2009

Eating in Japan

Cooking in Japan is a real adventure and going to the supermarket is usually the highlight of the day for me although it takes me about 1 hour to buy stuff for dinner. When we visited our first supermarket we did not have a clue what to do with about 80% of the stuff there. Now we are down to 30%, but it is still very exotic. And on top of all that we try to buy cheaply. We had some very big surprises about what is cheap and what is expensive. Let’s start with the cheap stuff:

Tofu is ridiculously cheap - a 300 gr slab comes for 25 to 50 cents, about 10% of what it would cost me in Germany. The same goes for bean sprouts, Pak Choy, spring onions, most fish and strangely enough for chicken. My favourite so far is squid. Squid for 2 people sells for about 1 to 2 EUR and is absolutely delicious. Instead of gooey rubber band you get squid that melts in your mouth. But there is also a lot of expensive stuff: Rice is double the price it is in Europe! And it is the most common food here, but due to import restrictions and/or customer preference they only sell expensive Japanese rice that always seems to end up as a soggy, slimy mess when we cook it. Potatoes and apples are so expensive that they are sold per piece (1 potatoe = 30 cents) and we have seen watermelons for 15 EUR per piece!

Picking Biwa
But there is also free food: To my big surprise and despite the fact that it is still only spring the fruit trees have been quite rewarding so far. We found a lot of orange and grapefruit trees plus a fruit called Biwa. I have never ever seen it before. It looks like an apricot but has a smooth skin that you have to peel before eating plus 4 bean like stones in eat. A lot of effort to eat them, but they are delicious.

Cooking is quite a challenge here especially because we want to keep expenses down. Dinner is experiment time and we are back to 3 course dinners. Lunch is usually some tempura fish or vegetable from a supermarket and when we are lucky we get discounted sushi (a huge sushi platter for the price of 1 piece of sushi in Germany).

But breakfast and snacks are still a problem. We tried Japanese breakfast, e.g. miso soup with tofu plus cold rice with seaweed, but we were both hungry again 1 hour after finishing breakfast. We changed to eating bread (which unfortunately comes presliced: 1 loaf of bread comes in 4 slices only, which means that you have to have a very wide mouth if you want to eat a sandwich) and jam, but this is bulky and not very healthy on the long run. And snacks pose an unsolvable problem. Chocolate comes in 50 gr bars and is outrageously expensive - the same goes for biscuits and chips or crackers. Tiny packages with half of the weight consisting of more packaging material at an outrageous price. Not good for cyclists, but good to help John loose some of the weight he has gained while cycling with me and 3 course dinners every night.

Cycling in Japan

Cycling in Japan is a horrible and wonderful experience at the same time. It can be horrible on major roads where the traffic is just overwhelming. There are tunnels everywhere. And navigation can be a problem in cities where everything is in Japanese and you have no clue where you are. But even in these bad circumstances things are made tolerable by the following factors:
- Japanese drivers are the most considerate and courteous I have ever seen. In almost 2 weeks we have never been honked at even once. They usually give you a very wide berth and are very patient in waiting to overtake you. And on top of that the speed limit even on major highways is 100 km/h. I have never felt so safe on roads as here in Japan.

- Most roads, especially in cities have a sidewalk cum bike path, so you can usually get away from traffic if you want to - in many cases even in tunnels. On the bike paths cyclists go ever which way and even on the roads locals drive in the wrong direction - and nobody seems to mind.

- And when we are looking for something, I use my three words of Japanese to ask for the way. Everyone is extremely friendly - not that we understand the answer, but we are pointed in the right direction and then just have to ask again.

But we also discovered a lot of extremely quiet and very scenic back roads with hardly any traffic at all and a scenery that rivals even New Zealand.

Japan - hurray!

I have only spent 2 weeks in Japan now, but it is already on the way to become on of my favourite countries. So much has happened, that I really don’t know what to write about first. Maybe I tell you 2 little stories that will show how friendly people are here:

After John and I had arrived in Osaka airport, we had to take a train to get to downtown Osaka and to our pre-booked youth hostel. We left the train and had to assemble our bikes to ride the last km to the hostel. But what to do now with the empty bike boxes? It was already very late, there was no place in sight where we could deposit them and therefore we reluctantly decided to leave them at the station - but we removed the airline name tags before. When we had eventually settled into our youth hostel room, we received a phone call from reception at midnight. “Did you by any chance leave 2 bike boxes at the train station?” We were totally confused. How could anyone trace 2 bike boxes without name tags to guests staying at a youth hostel 1 km away from the station? And even worse: Would we be fined for littering now? We were very relieved when we were told: “The station master found these bike boxes and wants to know whether you want them tomorrow or whether he can throw them away. That’s all.” What a wonderful introduction to a country where people seem to care for you.

10 days later we were sitting in a supermarket stuffing our faces with cheap crappy cream cakes when an older lady approached us and asked us in broken English whether we were hungry. We thought that she was referring to our food attack and told her that we were indeed very hungry. This prompted her to go to a nearby food stall and buy us three stacks of sushi and meat. I was a little bit embarrassed when she gave us the food and left immediately with “God bless you” - but it tasted great for lunch.

New Romantic
We started our trip in Osaka where we could only stay for 2 nights. Due to the "Golden Week", Japan's main holiday season everything was fully booked. We were lucky to get a room in the youth hostel but for that we had to assure them that we are really married.... unmarried couples are not allowed to share a room! We could not do much sightseeing in 2 days, especially since we had to buy maps for the rest of our trip, but we were lucky enough to witness a fantastic drumming festival. Drumming seems to be a big pass time in Japan and various different drumming groups were perfoming a combination out of percussion and dance. We also discovered the subway stations were Japanese youth hang out dressed up in fancy "New Romantic" costumes or playing with their band. Unfortunately the latter activity is so popular that one band was located next to each other and everything ended in one big noise.

Our first bike ride in Japan was supposed to get us to Koya-San - the weather was horrible but we were discovered by an American expat who invited us to his home. His Japanese wife took pity on us and gave us our first supermarket tour: She very patiently explained what your are supposed to do with all that weird stuff and how it tastes. After this extremely enlightening experience we continued uphill to Koya-San - of course all in constant rain. Koya-San is famous for its Buddhist temples, but after a while we were more concerned about where to camp! This was our first free camping experience and we had no clue what to look for. When we asked in one monastery we were directed to an obscure spot outside the town on the map. We doubted that this would be a suitable campsite but we went there nevertheless. And the monks had been spot on- there were even remnants of an old camp fire. But we even found a better spot close by - and stayed for 2 nights as the weather was so bad. No big surprise: This was the rainy season....