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Lost in a Tea-Nation

20 November , 2010

Or. The Mis-adventures of a complete novice in Japan

It all started with a slurping bowl of noodles. Buckwheat, as it happens. Topped with a poached egg and a skinny fried layer of inari, a sweet beancurd skin, floating together in rich dashi stock. It was breakfast at Tokyo station, and along with another million or so commuters, I needed sustenance before the eastern sun rose bright over Japan that morning. Although I had been in Tokyo a few days, it was not until I met with the somewhat incongruous sight of a smartly attired businessman slurping his morning bowl of noodles with great gusto that I began to discern some of the paradoxes of this deeply unfamiliar land. Instead of just watching everything, eyes and jaw wide open, my own noodle started to function. Perhaps it too started to slurp at Japan.


Take the slurping, for example. Here is surely one of the world’s most exaggeratingly polite nations, where a train conductor will bow to the passengers every time he enters each different carriage, every time he walks up the train in which all passengers are asked to turn their mobiles to silent and where mothers remove their children’s shoes before allowing them to sit on the seats. In this land of exquisite etiquette and consideration for others, slurping noodles is an art form. A business man, sitting down to breakfast in his perfectly polished shoes and neatly ironed pinstripe suit will have put his coins in the ticket machine, to pass his food order to the restaurant counter (a popular method that confounded me for the best part of a week as I tried to get iced taro milk tea and ended up with steamed pork buns), and then noisily suck the noodles out of his bowl, whipping up the soya-steam filled air to great effect. Slurping is not considered rude in Japan. Apparently, nor is reading porn openly on the train carriages or pissing on the main Shibuya streets in Tokyo at 7.30pm either so long as you are a) male and b) visibly drunk. I must have seen these both a myriad times in the course of a fortnight.

Sitting on your futon, however, is considered a deep offense, however, as the maid at the Ryokan where I was staying sternly told me as she walked into my room at 7.30am without so much as a knock to roll back my bedding for the day. Caught semi-naked, she did not consider her unannounced invasion of my morning privacy to be offensive, no doubt because different concepts of privacy exist and also perhaps because the notoriously reserved Japanese are extremely unreserved when it comes to same-sex nudity, which I later learned in the onsen town of Kinosaki.

Hot water

Onsen are the hot springs that are literally bubbling away all over Japan’s volcanic archipelago. They are one of the great pleasures for Japanese and foreign tourists alike, and a trip to Japan is incomplete without visiting an onsen town, particularly in Autumn where towns like Kinosaki on the northern Sea of Japan become resplendent in their autumn foliage colours, allowing bathers to plunge themselves, naked, into hot water, whilst a fiery mosaic of reds and oranges flutters across the dusky skies. In Kinosaki, onsen-visitors wander along the willow-lined canal wearing nothing but their yukata and geta sandals, grabbing some crab tempura along the stroll between the seven public baths, and hot sake to ward off the impending winter.

The public onsen baths are mostly same-sex and no clothing whatsoever is allowed in them for fear that any outside contact may pollute the local environment. Bathers wash themselves off before soaking themselves in the communal waters, inside or outside, with warts and all visible to neighbours, friends and the straying eyes of foreign tourists. What happens in the onsen, stays in the onsen , however. What I learned about the private habits of Japanese women is a story limited strictly to female friends over a glass of beer .

Drinking habits and the subway

And beer is a plenty in Japan. Every 250m or so, drinks dispensers are placed all over any urbanised locations. Along with water, juice and oolong tea, beer and sake are available, often more cheaply than the soft drinks, encouraging a nation whose eating habits are so lauded worldwide to plunge themselves into a bevy of unrestrained drinking.

Nowhere is this more apparent than taking the subway in Tokyo at night. Safe to the point of utter envy for a Londoner who would not dream of leaving her laptop or purse on an overhead luggage rack in a crowded Tube train as they do in Japan, the Tokyo subway is also a fascinating glimpse into the world that goes on behind closed doors in an impenetrable language. Phones are, of course, switched onto silent but Harajuku street-dressed teenagers text rabidly, their bags of newly acquired clothes lying unattended by their sides. Men, women and children often wear face masks, both out of consideration for their neighbours and out of apparent phobia for germs . Businessmen, who in the morning may have slurped their noodles quite respectably, lie snoring with their mouths open in a haze of alcohol, their heads slipping onto neighbouring passengers who are too polite to push them away. All this at only 10pm on a Monday night. The stereotype of Japanese salaraymen going out to eat and drink themselves into a stupor every evening after the monotony of their daily work appears to hold a ring of truth. And, yes, the love hotels and capsule hotels (built with their convenience in mind) are everywhere .

Conformism or individualism?

Certainly, an early morning walk or run around Tokyo or Kyoto will give you a slight sense of the rigidity of the notorious office routines. As I pounded past the maple-lined canal in Kyoto’s northern Higashiyama district, trying to work off the deep fried snacking and endless bowls of noodles, the firemen were all lined up next to their toy fire engines, doing stretching exercises with their boss. And outside a conference centre, about fifty staff came running to bow to an eminent visitor who was pulling up in a black taxi. Large groups of Japanese tourists block all the streets in Kyoto as they are shepherded by a grown woman sporting a Hello Kitty outfit. But I suspect that even if Harry Potter arrived in a London cabbie (and the mania is definitely in Japan too), nobody would cross the street unless the green man flashed and permitted them to do so, regardless of an utterly empty road.

But, for all the talk of conformity, the sense of individualism can come as a surprise to the Japanese newcomer. Whilst schoolboys seem to adopt the universal code of Converse trainers, girls and women dress without so much as a nod to Western trends. Shapes defy Chanel, despite the modernism of the Prada and Dior buildings in Tokyo’s Omote-sande district; the call for girls to be sweet or “kawaii” encourages all manner of coquettish clothes in a land where clothes seem to be an extension of personality rather than a Western-style pride of the wearer. A middle-aged woman on the subway was wearing a heavy navy overcoat with the buttons all done down the back rather than the front, for example. Nobody blinked an eyelid. Walking the streets of Harajuku on a Sunday, the so-called “cosplay” kids create their own costume-filled universe where they dress as outrageously as you can imagine – girls dressed as characters from manga comics, or in outlandish outfits as a break from the uniform of the rest of their lives. Nobody seems to blink an eyelid, through the double eyelid tape that is readily available in most pharmacies alongside forehead razors for girls and bottom pads to enhance features with which this beautiful nation seems to be unhappy. Conformism to ideals and expression of individuality do seem to run hand in rabbit-fur-gloved hand in Japan. It is impossible for a newbie to begin to make sense of any of it. Paradox, it seems, may have been a word invented specifically for the Japanese.


Which may be why the Japanese are adept at borrowing ideas or things from other countries and making them their own. German Baumkuchen, for example, have been adopted as a Japanese sweet and little shops selling a variety of their flavours can be found all over the country, alongside mochi cakes and red bean paste desserts. The Japanese will tell you that the baumkuchen are Japanese, and somehow they have become as Japanese as turtle risotto, beef hormone sashimi, live lobster, the lethal blowfish (akame-fugo) grilled with salt, conger eel and of course ramen noodles, which came originally from the Chinese, along with the kanji of one of the three Japanese alphabets. Incidentally, whilst I was here, it appears the Japanese were getting rather upset with their Chinese neighbours again, this time involving the apparent theft by the Chinese of the infamous bullet train technology. And a sailor in the wrong Sea, or something. But since I can’t speak or read Japanese, and I have barely seen an English newspaper or an English or European television channel, it is pretty difficult to understand. International Japan may be, but it brings the external into its internal, and then seems to close the door.

Matcha, or green tea, is as quintessentially Japanese as samurai or geisha and the art of matcha remains intact. Unable to attend a tea ceremony, I was nevertheless struck by green tea in its numerous incarnations. Iced green tea or hotto green tea (hot tea) are only the most obvious. Green tea forms the flavouring of a large number of desserts and cakes as well as making its way into some of the international products too. Amongst others, I noticed green tea Starbucks lattes, Haagen-Dazs, kit-kats and pound cake.

And yet, despite these international adoptions, this is one of the least Americanised places on the planet notwithstanding that it is also one of the most developed countries in the world. Almost nobody speaks English and very little information, including street signs, menus and station schedules, are in English. The Japanese seem to get along just fine without everybody speaking English and despite the occasional communication hiccup, for a foreigner traveller wanting a challenge, it truly is refreshing to be in a country where things are just so different, and un-American .

The silent shrine?

Noisy, and different. Pop aside any meditational images of Japanese Zen shrines, and dry Edo-era gardens that you may have. Of course, they exist in large numbers but sometimes it feels as though Japan is one of the noisiest countries on earth. On an autumn weekend in Kyoto, the stunning shrines and teahouses are heaving with throngs of Japanese tourists arriving en masse in tour buses. As the maple season gets into full fire, visitors come to Kyoto, Takayama and other central Honshu regions to take pictures in front of the spectacular colours. Even forests, which on an early Monday morning may feel like the surreal, tranquil home of gnomes and fairies will turn into a Nikon-clicking tourist circus on any November weekend.

Popping into the Mammon-worshipping department stores or any small store anywhere in the country, the universal welcoming cry of “Irrasamassaiee” may well prove to be the singular most irritating factor for the untrained in Japan. Although in fact it is a kind-hearted welcome, many shop assistants repeat the word on every out-breathe. I stood in several stores where the assistant would just follow me around shrieking “Irrasamassaiee”, effectively chasing me out of their shop.

The trains too, as silent and speedy as the shinkansen bullet trains are out of Tokyo, can be a noisy affair: The announcements on the local trains never end with cloying music and repeated announcements interrupting what would otherwise be an incredibly efficient and peaceful journey gazing at the dense forests and hillsides of Japan.

Paradox and comprehension

But those hillsides, and forests, lush with dancing bamboo, tall-as-skyscraper pines and deciduous trees, seem to wrap Japan’s hills and mountains with such vivid density that it is possible to forget the country is also home to intense enterprise. As the bullet train speeds past Mt Fuji, a spectacular and iconic image of Japan, the first-time visitor is also privy to miles upon miles of fuming factories on the very foothills of this national treasure. The maples leaves and cherry blossoms are no doubt visible, from hiking pathways approached by a different angle, but the vision of speed, efficiency, factories and Fuji certainly imprint the visitor with the multi-faceted hues of this fascinating country.

Of Kindness…

There was not much I understood in Japan, but in a country where talking to strangers is not common, I did understand two things. I understood that I was always welcomed, and I understood how much the Japanese love their food. No matter where I was, how much I may have struggled to understand what I was looking for, there was always someone kindly to try to direct me, or accompany me to where I was trying to go. There was always someone to show me how to re-tie my yukata gown in the onsen when I wore mine the way in which corpses are tied. There was always a compliment for my chopstick-endeavours no matter which restaurant counter I sat in. Foreigners always stand out in Japan and although I felt largely invisible (apart from, respectively, a Syrian man, two Turkish men and an Indian man who spoke to me), on the rare occasions that a Japanese person would smile and chat to me, it always felt like I had been bestowed a valuable gift: The elderly man who told me that I was sitting outside his family temple and that he would like me to come in. The mother who said I would look beautiful in a kimono. In the silent formality of Japanese restaurants I particularly appreciated the office worker in a queue next to me in Kyoto recommending burdock tempura with my white flat udon noodles, and who explained that the hanging curtains in front of a restaurant’s sliding doors meant the joint was open. There was a wonderful family in Kyoto who took me drinking with them when I spoke just one word of Japanese with them, leading to a night of sake and green tea ice cream tempura. The father who spoke not a word of English but who told me through his children that to have me eat with them had made his year special.

..And a full belly!

And eating retains a special place in the heart of the Japanese. I have never eaten so much or so often. Yanaka, the quiet traditional neighbourhood in Tokyo where I stayed, introduced me to the subtle pleasures of Japanese grazing, on a Sunday where strollers picked tonkatsu (pork cutlets) from one place, nibbled on caramelised sweet potato, pancake-like okonomaki or skewers of yakitori in another clenching glasses of beer or cups of lethal black coffee. The French-Japanese fusion of Joel Robuchon, and the other too-many-to-mention Michelin starred enterprises across Tokyo and Kyoto demonstrated just how well Japanese food could adapt to the globalising world. If I could not understand the menu, I would usually just point and hope. Also, the Japanese are the champions of plastic food models making it easier to have an idea what you are about to munch.

The specialities in every town I visited made me appreciate how distinctive and varied Japanese cuisine is, from Kobe or Hida beef in Takayama served up in skewers, buns, curries or grilled to fresh crab and seam bream served raw, sliced, tempura battered or dressed in Kinosaki; from delicious bamboo baskets of cold soba noodles served with a delicious broth with finely sliced beef and vegetables in Kyoto, to the haute cuisine of kaiseki in Kyoto to the izakaya food in the shimo-kitawa funky student neighbourhoods of Tokyo. The department stores put Harrods and Selfridges to shame, bearing such opulent displays and such mouth-watering food and tastings that food was always the highlight of every day. I tried some strange things, especially desserts, and I bought a few rather odd skewers of grilled rice or hotpot foods that were not quite to my taste. I avoided sea urchin paste (uni), devil’s tongue jelly, beef gristle noodles on fermented soybeans and steamed fish heads. But even when out walking in the silent, dense autumnal forests around the Hida gorge, the local convenience store provided me with Korean-spiced octopus to nibble on under the trees, watching the maple leaves glow orange and the sun slowly lower itself gently, like I would do every night, onto the tatami-mat floor of my Japanese ryokans.

Lost in Translation

Over this fortnight of exploration, I have felt utterly ‘Lost in Translation’, or perhaps, ‘Lost in a Tea-nation’. But, slurping from one bowl of noodles to the next, I have learned how little I actually know, and perhaps how little much of the world knows, about one of the world’s most developed yet isolated nation.

Nothing here felt the same, and everything felt different. A toilet seat is not just a toilet seat, but one which is heated, plays music and washes and dries. A night workman will paint his face with yellow make-up to match his fluorescent clothing as he directs night time traffic. If you come looking for a glimpse of a geisha, you will need to be lucky to catch her in the dusky backstreets of Kyoto’s Gion district, as she strides to work with her severe, white-painted face. But if you come looking for a glimpse of both the past and the future, Japan will certainly sate you with both.

A visit to Japan almost certainly will be paradoxical, fascinating and spectacularly different. Just learn how to use chopsticks before you get here.

November 19th 2010


From → Travel

  1. Hi,
    Do you remember Japanese papa& his children at Japanese tempra restaurant in kyoto? I read your column and feel you really enjoyed japan trip and other forign countries as well. And I found the part of ours. I let papa knows you write about ours. We are very happy to read.
    If you like, I can send you your pictures.
    Anyway, we had very good time with you in Japan.
    Thank you very much,

    P.S. End of this month we are going to Paris.
    if we have time, we will go to london and hot spots you introduced.
    Thanks again,
    Kenji & Akiko

    • SKJ permalink

      Kenji and Akiko,
      Are you all ok? Remembering you all with much fondness, and wishing you and your loved ones are all safe in these terrible times.

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