Culture Shock #97: The Onsen Experience

I am going to be doing some posts about my experience as a Kenyan in Japan. I’ll count down from 100 but in no particular order. Of course I expected Japan to be different so when people asked me if I experienced culture shock, I’d say no. But opon further reflection, there are so many things that have me asking, Japan, what the hell! That would never happen in Kenya! (and vice versa!). If that isn’t culture shock, then I don’t know what is. As an English-speaking nation and a former British colony, we are heavily influenced by the West (Europe and the USA) so there is little in our media/entertainment from Far East Asia .. not many Kenyans know much about The Far East and many confuse Japan for China or vice versa. So this has been literally, an eye-opening experience. Click on the hashtag for all the posts so far.

So your boyfriend has a better handbag than you, yet he walks around with his wallet sticking out of his back pocket. Meanwhile, you are glad you have double eye-lids and have recently been utilizing a small-face corset so your face may have now shrunk to acceptable standards. But just in case it hasn’t, you have been wearing a surgical mask daily even if you’re not in danger of catching a fatal disease. But you’re not yet fully integrated into the Japanese culture until you are comfortable going to have a shower in a public bathhouse, after which you get into a giant bathtub, fully naked, with other strangers.

Okay, so there are onsens and then there are public bathhouses. (This is my understanding/categorization). Onsens are/were (natural)hotsprings, set in a backdrop of beautiful scenery. Sometimes they’d be in the mountains overlooking a beautiful valley, or the scenic view of snow etc. The main bath would be outside as you soak in the view and relax in hot water which is luxurious especially in winter.

An onsen in winter. Image from http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/schauwecker/111231.html

An onsen in winter. Image from http://www.japan-guide.com/blog/schauwecker/111231.html

To soak in the above inviting onsen, anyone can overcome any shyness or reservations they have about public bathing.

Then there are bathhouses. I didn’t understand why anyone would leave their bathtub at home to go bathe and soak in public. Most people do this on a daily basis or on several days a week.

Men bathing at an onsen. Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/464926361502378098/

Men bathing at an onsen. Image from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/464926361502378098/

Before getting into the bath, you must first wash yourself. The shower area has these plastic stools where you are supposed to sit so as to properly scrub yourself. After which you can enter the pool of sometimes scalding water, which you get used to after a few minutes.

Apparently, “‘Sento’ or public baths have long been part of the Japanese culture and dates back to the time when not all houses have their own bathrooms and some want to experience the soothing feeling hot springs water gives.” But actually, even if you have your own bathtub, it is just not possible to maintain the temperature as well as the bathhouses do, and of course you have plenty of room to stretch and relax at the bathhouse instead of a cramped bathtub.

No, there are no onsens or bathhouses in Kenya. That would seem a strange idea indeed.

I thought it made sense to go to bathhouses in winter and I have been going at least once a week with J. It is very relaxing afterwards and you sleep like a baby. So J and I like to go after dinner.

However, Japanese people go to onsens/bathhouses even in summer, when temperatures are in their late 30s! They say they feel very refreshed afterwards, but I am yet to muster the courage to enter a scalding hot bath in the summer heat!

Most onsens (I think over 95%) have separate sections for men and women. There are some mixed gender onsens but I am yet to go to such (although I hear they be mostly full of men hoping to catch a glimpse of any women joining them). Girls and boys under 8 years old are allowed to go either way! So it is not strange to see 7 year old boys, who of course understand the physical difference between the genders, bathing and soaking with their mothers in the women’s side. Young girls of up to 8 may go with their grandfathers to the men’s side. It’s a little bit unnerving at first because in most Kenyan communities, gazing upon the nakedness of your mother/motherly women is probably a curse-inviting offense. But really, there should be no shame in or any need to hide the human body. I think it is okay now that J is almost 3 and still young, but I am not sure I can still take him with me after he’s turned 5 and over. We’ll see.

In the meantime, we are loving the bathhouses and can be seen there at least once a week. It’s one of the things I am sure we will miss about Japan if and when we return. Never mind there is no winter in Kenya.

What To Do in Fukui, Gifu and Nagoya

Christmas in Japan is a working day like any other, but I wasn’t going to let it just go by. Jeremy, Patricia (my friend from Solomon Islands) and I had an all-you-can-eat lunch at an Indian restaurant in Kanazawa. But on New Year’s, we made plans to see a little bit more of Japan by visiting Fukui City in Fukui Prefecture (which is adjacent to Ishikawa Prefecture where we live), Gifu City in Gifu Prefecture and Nagoya City in Aichi Prefecture.

We only spent a day in each city so it was mostly touch-and-go, but at each city we made a stop that is worth recommending to anyone who wants to see these places.

Fukui: Dinosaurs, Ruins, Temples

Fukui is mostly famous for several types of dinosaurs whose fossils have been dug up there. Unfortunately, on the day we went there, the Fukui Prefectural Dinosaur Museum was closed. We contented ourselves with taking pictures and watching the three dinosaurs in front of Fukui Station. They move and roar from time to time which is exciting even for adults!

dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Try-something-something-aus dinosaur at the Fukui Station

dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Pattie, J and the dinosaurs at Fukui Station

Fukui is a one hour train ride from Komatsu Station. We arrived in Fukui at around noon so naturally, the next stop was lunch. Luckily, our friend Sakana who is a photographer (if you need photos taken of your family for weddings, graduations and such, highly recommended), picked us up and took us to this ramen restaurant in Fukui City.

Ramen restaurant in Fukui. I can't read the Kanjis so I can't tell you its name..

Ramen restaurant in Fukui. I can’t read the Kanjis so I can’t tell you its name..

Allow me to digress a little and show this photo Sakana took of J and I sometime in October last year.

Jeremy and I

Jeremy and I

After lunch, we went for a drive to see the Ichijodani Asakura Clan Ruins. It is basically a beautiful valley in which a castle town existed from the 1470s to the 1570s. However, all that can be seen now are the remains of the town – hence the name Asakura Ruins. It may be better to go in autumn as the scenery will even be more beautiful.

Ichijodani Asakura Water Station

Ichijodani Asakura Water Station, that is what the sign says

The wall surrounding the ghost town

The wall surrounding the ghost town

Just further up the road from the ruins is a beautiful waterfall. We met some other tourists there taking in the view as well. It was quite cold and there was some snow on the ground, it hadn’t yet snowed in Ishikawa!

Pattie and Jeremy at the Ichijodani Waterfall

Pattie and Jeremy at the Ichijodani Waterfall. Note: I am not sure its actual name!

There was still some time left in the day, so we drove to Hokyoji Temple in Ono City. Quoting from japantravel.com, “Hokyoji Temple in Fukui is the second head temple of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan. It was founded by Jakuen, a Chinese Zen monk who trained in Zen with Dogen, who was visiting China at the time, and later founded Eiheiji Temple.” This is the website of the temple, all in Japanese though. We didn’t see any monks training. In fact, we saw no one. We didn’t enter the temple but admired it from the outside. It had snowed heavily in the mountains and we enjoyed the view, took some pictures and left. It is a quiet, tranquil and isolated temple.

Mummy, what's this snow thing?

Mummy, what’s this snow thing?

Hokyoji Temple

Hokyoji Temple

J's hand searching for warmth :D

J’s hand searching for warmth :D

On the way back to Fukui City, Sakana remembered a Kenyan couple who are also students living in Fukui, we have them a call and they welcomed us into their house, just like that. They had made yummy chapos that we washed down with tea brewed Kenyan style. I hope to see them again, very welcoming people.

Gifu: Mountain Views

The following day, we left Fukui Station around 10am for Gifu City. The limited express train (Shirasagi) takes about 2 and a half hours from Fukui to Gifu. This time when we arrived at the station, Pattie’s Solomon Island friends were waiting to pick us up. Since we arrived at around noon, the first stop was of course, lunch. We had lunch at a Chinese restaurant near Gifu University (I also didn’t get the name). The food was delicious, the portions were HUUGE, and the price very fair. However, Jeremy refused to sit down. He also refused to let me sit down to eat in peace. Sometimes you wonder what 2 year olds want! Eventually, I had to ask for my food to be packed, and bought some food for J at McDonalds which he enjoyed.

If you are in Gifu, be sure to climb Mount Kinka for the views and for the Castle.

#GifuCastle #Gifu #Kinkazan

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

I think you can catch a bus from Gifu Station to Mount Kinka but thank God for friends and friends of friends with cars!

If you are feeling fit, and time and weather permit, you can hike up the hill and it will take you about 45min-1hour. However, we had J with us and the weather wasn’t that good and it was late in the afternoon, so we went up the ropeway. It costs about 1,600 Yen for a return ticket. You can take the ropeway up and then hike down or vice versa.

We went up Mount Kinka using this ropeway .. a little scary but it takes only 2 minutes

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

Once on top, these are some of the views to see around you. You can see as far as Nagoya, which is a 30 minute train ride from Gifu.

#Gifu #Kinkazan

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

Thaaaat there in the distance is Nagoya.. as seen from #MountKinka #Kinkazan #Gifu

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

#Kinkazan #Views

Savvy Kenyaさん(@savvykenya)が投稿した写真 –

There is also a beautiful park at the base of Mount Kinka which is even more beautiful in autumn.

It was around 4PM when we finally came down from Mount Kinka and Pattie’s friends dropped us at Gifu Castle Inn where we had booked a room. It had free wifi in the rooms. We got a chance to relax, had long relaxing baths, turned on the aircon so we had tropical temperatures in a Japanese winter and bought our dinner from the convenience store a minute away.

Nagoya: Aquariums and Adorable Dolphins

There is a subway from Nagoya Station to Nagoya Port, although you may have to connect. The main attraction is the Port of Nagoya Public Aquarium but there is also an amusement park at the port.

We paid around 2,000 Yen entrance and waited until 4pm for the Dolphins Show. The dolphins perform all manner of synchronized swimming, jumping, dancing, bowing etc and tricks such as jumping through hoops and jumping as high as 6 meters to touch a dangling ball. We all ooohed, ahhed and clapped at the end of each show as the dolphins bowed and waved their tails goodbye. Oh man, what a show. I will be sure to take J again when he’s older and able to appreciate the show a bit more.

The Ferris Wheel at the Nagoya Port

The Ferris Wheel at the Nagoya Port

Jeremy watching a dolphin

Jeremy watching a dolphin at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

A white shark at the Nagoya Aquarium

The dolphins show at the Nagoya Aquarium

Two dolphins bow during show at the Nagoya Aquarium

At Nagoya, we spent New Year’s Eve at an Air BnB house. The lady was very welcoming and she has 2 kids – one 5, one 9 months – and we had dinner together with her family. Later, Jeremy played with her son (Jake) until they both fell asleep. A little before midnight, they left to go to the temple and make wishes for the new year (read more about Japanese New Year Customs Aosindi’s blog). By then J was deep asleep and I didn’t want to disturb him, so Pattie accompanied them.

We of course, took several selfies.

A happy start to the year it was!

A happy start to the year it was!

The following day, on 1st, we got back on a direct, limited express train (Shirasagi) to Komatsu/Kanazawa. Felt good to be back home after seeing so much in so little time.

Looking forward to the next travel adventure. Crossing my fingers it is somewhere abroad.

Happy 2016 dear readers of this blog!

I Was Hacked and Other October Stories

In many ways, October was a trying month for me.

To begin with, there was the drama with Jeremy’s ticket, which I have already blogged about.

The journey to Japan was long and tiring. We first flew from Nairobi to Doha, Qatar, a 5 hour journey that was mostly smooth because Jeremy slept through most of it. In Doha, we had about a 2 hour layover, after which we boarded the plane for a 10 hour journey to Osaka. Jeremy slept for maybe 3-4 hours but the remaining hours were spent going to the toilet – to flush it, apparently it is very exciting for kids to hear the sudden flushing sound in airplane toilets – and back to our seats. We probably visited the toilet at least 15 times before J finally tired of the “game” and after eating a whole packet of crisps – hey don’t judge me, he had refused to eat most of what was served even if it was mostly rice, which he likes. So after eating a whole packet of crisps, he relaxed and even watched a bit of Dora the Explorer. He however, refused to sit down during landing and attempts to make him sit were met with wild screams – I am sure the Japanese people in the plane wondered if I was doing something “bad” to him. We finally landed safely, at 5;30pm in the evening but we had another 3 hour journey to Komatsu from Kansai to go through.

Jeremy watching Dora the Explorer on the way from Doha to Osaka

Jeremy watching Dora the Explorer on the way from Doha to Osaka

I had two suitcases, two carryon bags, and Jeremy to look after, but somehow I made it. Jeremy “helped” by holding onto one suitcase so he thought he was pulling it but that was how I was able to “hold his hand”. We made it to Komatsu at around 10pm and I knew he must be hungry because he was asking me for chocolate. A friend picked us up from the train station and we went to MacDonalds where he refused to eat the burger but ate the fries and drank the milk. We finally got to the campus after 11p,m, our home for the next 3 years, and slept long and hard after a hot bath.

The first week was spent at the local city hall filling hundreds of forms – the Japanese are famous for their bureaucracy -, filling forms at the university, I was officially changing my status from research student to PhD student, settling into the new 1 bed-roomed apartment at the university dorm, shopping for necessities, and taking Jeremy to the preschool (called Hoikuen) where he would spend his daytime as I studied.

It was trying being his “mother” and sole caregiver for the first time since he was born. See, I was living with my parents when he was born so my mother took care of the both of us. In addition, he had a nanny and we always had an array of cousins, aunts and relatives to give him care and attention. Of course he also received attention from my brothers and my dad. So now it was up to me to provide all that attention, and it was difficult for both of us because sometimes I could not discern why he was crying. Sometimes he cries because he wants to go to the toilet instead of just saying it (he is toilet trained), or he is hungry but isn’t sure what he wants to eat (you have to present all options you have then he will choose what he wants or you choose for him), or he needs to sleep. The need for sleep is the hardest because he may not want to sleep although he is tired, so he will be irritable and you have to hold and sooth him and “create conditions suitable for him to sleep”. I have since learned his needs – which are the basic food, toilet, sleep – but he also craves entertainment/stimulation and now most days are smooth sailing.

I had a schedule set, I would drop off J at the Hoikuen by 9am, come back to attend classes and do assignments, pick him up at 3 or 4pm, play with him, give him a bath, dinner and he would be asleep by 8pm after which I would continue with my research. However, it took a while for him to get used to going to preschool and he would want to play outside when it was time for lunch, would push other kids as a form of “play” as he was used to playing with older kids back in Kenya, and the Hoikuen would call me to pick him up early. Usually, 12:30. However, by the third week, he was finally staying until 3pm or even 4pm without fuss, he was following rules, he was eager in the morning to go to school and would leave me at the entrance as I removed my shoes and run to his class to play with “my children” as he calls them in Swahili, “watoto wangu”.

Jeremy and I taking a walk at around the campus one evening. We stopped to rest and take selfies!

Jeremy and I taking a walk at around the campus one evening. We stopped to rest and take selfies!

Everything was starting to “settle down”. Having begun the month in a state of debt, I was planning on how to settle these debts, how to adjust my schedule so I could have more research time (I find myself going to bed at 8pm together with J!) etc. The city hall document requests were almost complete, and I was planning on my next blogpost about reviewing 2-3 books I had read recently. I was checking my emails when I saw an announcement from Stanchart telling me the loan rates were increasing, yet again. Yes, I took a bank loan from Stanchart two years ago at an interest rate of 16.9%, but the rates have now increased to 25.4%, possibly increasing my blood pressure as well. I was mad at the stupid economy that is Kenya right now, and the banks that must make a profit whether it rains or shines. Where they expect us to get more money from in the “prevailing economic conditions” as they said in the email is a mystery to me.

Then I got hacked, and anyone attempting to access my blog was faced with a dire warning: “reported attack page”.

I must admit, this warning scared the shit out of me.

I must admit, this warning scared the shit out of me.

Actually, the attackers had been around my blog for some time now. I found weird PHP scripts in my WordPress folder, such as kill.php, sulky.php, sly.php etc.. and my blog would be inundated with DoS attacks and would be inaccessible for some time. Updating WordPress and plugins and themes, changing passwords wouldn’t work.. until finally the dire warning came and even I could hardly access my blog. So now I was in the midst of figuring out how to start afresh, without infected files but while retaining all my 4 years’ worth of blogging content.

Suspicious php scripts in my previous WordPress folder

Suspicious php scripts in my previous WordPress folder

The clearing of the debts and loans, the cleaning of the blog, my assignments – every week I got new assignments for the two classes I am taking – my major research, my minor research project, where I was going to find time to study Japanese, Jeremy and how he was adapting to the school; these were among the many thoughts going through my head as we sang “The wheels on the bus song” on Wednesday morning last week as I drove Jeremy to school.

We had just got to a 4-way junction next to the university campus with no traffic lights but stop signs for the drivers on the “minor road”. I was on the main road and was going straight, and therefore I am not required to stop. I observed a car on the minor road that had stopped, so I merely slowed down and was almost through the intersection when I saw another white car bearing down on us from the left; I saw that it was not going to slow down or stop so I put my hand on the horn and my foot on the brakes. But it was too late, the next thing I heard was the crunch of metal against metal, and the sound of metal scratching against the road as both our cars went in different directions.

I cannot explain what the my state of mind was at that point but I was calm enough to oddly switch on the hazard lights, put the car in parking and switch off the engine, and then pick up J from his child seat that was strapped to the back seat. He was safe from injury and neither had I been injured. Carrying J, I went to see how the other driver was fairing as he got out from his car that had somehow climbed over the curb and come to a rest a few meters into the grass park. He was also fine.

This was my first accident. It was minor accident, when it comes to injuries. However, the condition of the cars is another story. At the point of initial impact, the front left wheel of my car was bent inward and suspended a little in the air, the axle having been bent into an awkward angle. The other guy’s car also looked terrible, with the glass on the passenger side shattered, and the hood gaping open revealing the piping and engine &co. The cops were called and wrote their report, the insurance company came, the guy admitted he was at fault etc… All this time, Jeremy was growing impatient as he wanted to go to school and luckily another student (she’s also a mother whose child goes to the same Hoikuen) who was passing by offered to take him to hospital for checkup and later to school, and I was left to deal with the formalities.

Now I feel like I am back to zero. Carless and broke as I wait for the insurance company to pay me for the damages even as they offer me the lowest amount possible.

But each day offers a new return to normalcy and mundanity, which is what I wish for. We are now using the school bus on most days and borrowing a car from a friend when needed. The most exciting thing I look forward to is when Jeremy has learned a new Japanese word or mastered the name of a new friend. The most satisfaction I look forward to is sending in my report just before the deadline. And when I manage to get enough time to type out a 2,000 blogpost and upload it to my now newly re-launched, clean blog (how I cleaned up is a story for another blog post). I am grateful for these small things. I also happen to have one of the most understanding professors for my major research which is a bonus.

The other day, some tweeps with pea-sized brains looking for some entertainment unearthed and started retweeting some tweets from 2010 (5 years ago!) when I had a twitter bout with a certain gentleman, then nicknamed “The Corporate Gangster”. I simply had no time to indulge them, I am literally and figuratively at another (superior) place and have more important issues to deal with. Like how calmly to navigate the 4-way junction each time I drive through it.

October was a long month, and all I ask for in November is normalcy, consistency, mundanity. I am simply glad to be alive so I can watch my son grow into the fine young man he’s already showing signs of.

(Edit)P.S.
To complete the October misery, I came to back to Japan only to learn that while I was in Kenyan in the summer, the only Japanese musician (and actor, photographer, radio host, Japan’s -well, formerly- most eligible bachelor etc) whose music I listen to, secretly got married but not to me as I had hoped 🙁

So anyway, you can listen to his playlist below.

How is Japan?

I have been asked this question about 100 times; and the brief answer is Japan is good. But that is a lie, Japan is not good. Japan is excellent. Japan is great. Japan is amazing. It is very different from home (Kenya), but it is also not home. I am about to contradict myself and say, it is home for now. So how different is it from Kenya?

This post is likely to be long.. so sit back and relax. (If you want you can skip to the title “Japanese people are kind” for personal experiences and observation, otherwise start straight below)

Japan is very clean. Walking through an average estate in Nairobi, you will note garbage dumped in vacant plots, plastic bags swaying in the wind and finally settling in the drainage by the roadside, and dust blowing into your face from the unpaved pedestrian pavement (where it exists) or from the unpaved road. Well, Nairobi CBD (downtown) is clean, especially West of Moi Avenue, the streets are cooler, it is quieter etc. But there is a waste management problem in the inner estates, and in the country as a whole. In Japan, garbage is sorted down to the last category, and there are different collection days for different types of garbage. In Kenya we include our plastic, used diapers, glass, metal and everything else into one garbage bag that is then picked up once a week. Street children then spend their time sorting out this mound of garbage for recyclables that they can resell. Not unlike India.

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtsey]

Waste pickers in India. Photo [courtesy]

From the remotest of villages to the largest of the cities, the roads are paved, the streets are clean and garbage is presorted. “The dirtiest” city I have seen so far is Osaka, my friend and I were surprised at some litter under bridges, so by Japanese standards it is dirty. But don’t say it is a third world problem, just look at Rwanda! I stayed there for 3 months and I dare say Rwanda is as clean as Japan; no Japan is as clean as Rwanda! Rwanda has banned plastic bags and so far that works for them. In addition one Saturday a month, everyone gathers for communal clean-up.

Japan has even managed to turn garbage into artificial islands on which Skyscrapers have been erected. Like Port Island in Kobe City, see image below.

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtsey

Port Island in Kobe City. Image, courtesy

Japan is very safe

There is virtually no street crime. When you live in a small city (or in a rural area like me), you don’t have to lock your house. Even in the large cities, it is not a problem if you forget to lock your house in the morning. You can forget your phone and wallet  somewhere and find it there the next time, or someone will call you and get them to you. As a woman, you can walk along the streets at night, alone, without fear of robbery or rape. You can use your smartphone in a crowded street without fear of it being snatched, you don’t have to worry about your bag in the streets or in public transport, your wallet is very unlikely to be pickpocketed (I resist the urge to tell Japanese people to tuck in their wallets more safely into their pockets, the men’s wallets are always popping out of their back pockets!), when you drive home late in the evening, you don’t have to worry about carjackers, when you have bought a 60-inch screen you don’t have to worry if someone saw you with it and they are planning a gunned robbery.. and so on and so forth.

In contrast, just the other day as my dad arrived home late one evening, there were armed robbers who ambushed him, took his laptop and phone; and as my mum had opened the door to let him in when she heard the car, they forced their way into the house and demanded money at gun-point. I was so furious yet helpless, thousands of miles away and even if I were home, I am not sure what I would have done. When I left work for home in the evening, I would walk from Upperhill to Ambassador, Moi Avenue, to catch a bus home. I wouldn’t dare freely use my Samsung Note 3  while walking in the streets as I have had my phone snatched before. At the bus stop, there would be a large crowd of people gathered and not all of them are passengers-to-be, some are opportunistic thieves waiting for a chance to pickpocket you. You have to be always on the lookout.

As such, whenever a Japanese person says “abunai desu ka” or “abunai desu ne”.. “is it dangerous” “it must be dangerous”, I just say “soo desu ne” “yes it is”. What other defense is there? I do not have sufficient Japanese vocabulary to explain that when you are born Kenyan, you grow up under these circumstances so this is “normal” to you; the need to be always alert. A violent robbery (thank God no lives were lost), a snatched phone (you will get another one soon), a lost wallet (IDs are replaceable don’t worry), you forget something somewhere and that’s the end of that. I was talking to a Japanese student and told him he was welcome to visit Kenya and he visibly shuddered. abunai he uttered. I tried to explain to him that the whole country is not like that, there are safe places and there are un-safe places. But really, even when you live in a gated community with electric fencing and a trained guard with dogs, there is always the fear of carjacking etc. Kenya is not thaat dangerous, especially if it is home. And anyway, death could find you wherever you are (natural disasters anyone?), so really do take some risks (you risk death just by being alive)and come see Kenya for yourself, it is a lovely place to visit. If you are a foreigner reading this, you are missing an experience of a lifetime, I speak from experience.

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Americans think the world revolves around them :)

Japan’s Home to the The Bullet Trains

Japan’s public transportation system has got to be among the best in the world. Sure, rush hour in Tokyo’s metro can feel suffocating (so I hear) but trains are an efficient way to move human traffic in cities. Sure beats Nairobi’s rush hour (and all day) traffic as well. When I went to Tokyo, the subway was amazing, going up to 7 levels below the ground, a different line on each level. Anyway, for comparison I have posted this before, but check it out again:

Nairobi:

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from www.jambonairobi.co.ke

Tokyo: and this is not even the complete map.

The Tokyo Train Map.

The Tokyo Train Map. Image from http://www.wa-pedia.com/

Of course we can’t compare Tokyo’s 13.35 Million population against Nairobi’s 3.123 Million, but bypasses, abolishing roundabouts, smart traffic lights etc will not solve our perennial traffic congestion problem. We need trains, subways, monorails.

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this?

A suspended mono-rail, how cool is this? Image from wikipedia

Japan is very mountainous

Kenya has a vast savanna grassland, think of the entire stretch of Tsavo as you drive from Nairobi to Mombasa. And for the life of me, I cannot think of a single tunnel passing through a mountain, can you? Travelling by bus from Tokyo to Kanazawa, or from Kanazawa to Osaka, you realize just how mountainous this country is when you go through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel after tunnel! Japan holds the record for the longest railway tunnel in the world that is 53,850 m (over 53 Kms!) long. Perhaps this mountainous terrain contributed to Japan’s advancement in engineering, conquering the mountains could not have been easy!

Well, this is a very short tunnel but you get the point!

Short tunnel

Short tunnel

Japan is a beautiful country, it’s breathtaking sometimes. With four distinct seasons (a beautiful spring, hot summer -though not as hot as India! – an auburn autumn and a white winter). I could describe it all it you but it will take the fun out for the imaginative as well as for the wanna-be explorers.

Japan is very proud of its culture and gardens! It has a rich history whose remains in form of old temples, castles, and shrines still stand today.

Japanese people are kind.

Case scenario: my friend told me he spent some time in India. If you are a black person in India, you are treated like you are in the lowest caste, a system of discrimination that still stands to date. I guess India has so many other problems that they don’t want to deal with this at the moment but as anyone (black) who has been to India will tell you, rude stares, snide remarks, and standing up when you sit next to them in public transport are the order of the day. Worse is, my friend even got the discriminating treatment from staff in the hotel he was staying in. Worst, is the news of a violent attack on 3 black African students in India.

In contrast, he told me a story of how he got stranded at Kanazawa Station, being new in Japan and not knowing the bus/train schedules. When he arrived the last bus was long gone. A Japanese couple noticed him and offered him a ride to Nomi Station, from where we take the train to JAIST (university). The last train was gone too, and even as he got off and looked around, the couple came back and asked him where he was going. He didn’t understand Japanese so he just showed them his school ID and they went  30 Kms out of their way to drop him off in JAIST way after 11pm. He has never seen the couple since then.  I have heard various stories from foreigners in Japan who tell of the acts of kindness they have received from Japanese people.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

Kanazawa Station. Image, courtesy.

No, I am not saying that Japanese people are perfect, or that Japan is perfect, but you are likely to receive help from kind strangers in Japan than in any other country I have ever heard of or experienced. In other words I think that the concentration of kind people is higher in Japan. Perhaps because they are brought up in a culture that emphasizes the importance of courtesy and respect.

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Obama showing respect the Japanese way

Will you experience discrimination, disguised under politeness so excessive you can’t even tell if it is discrimination or an actual lack of understanding? Maybe. But is there a perfect country? In any case, I have experienced discriminatory service at Java Upperhill where white people who came later than us were served immediately while we waited for an interminable length of time. Imagine that, in my own country. Makes my blood boil. Fucking black racists. As if our money has a black mark that lowers its value or as if our credit cards aren’t platinum enough. takes deep breath, releases deep breath. Let’s move on.

Excellent service

At first it can be shocking to enter a restaurant and hear a chorus of irashaimase! (Welcome). You will also be addressed a with honorific title, okyaku-sama (honoured customer).  When you exit the shop/restaurant, it is likely that all the staff will signal to one other and you could hear another chorus of arigatou gozaimasu. The customer is king and Japanese people lead by example in demonstrating this. Excellent service is available everywhere, even at the cheapest of places. In contrast, good service in Kenya is mostly available in star-rated restaurants. Imagine walking into a shop like Mr. Price and expecting all staff to welcome you, it is more likely that you will get a look that says, oh God here comes another one. And in Japan you don’t tip. Your change comes back to you to the last yen. (The tipping culture in the US began when there was a law passed that allowed tips to make up the difference between actual pay and minimum wage). As such, tipping is agonizing for Japanese people whenever they travel to the US.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what's on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

Tipping rules in the US. SO complicated! How will the Japanese read all this English? And who wants to do math? In Japan you just pay what’s on your bill and you are still assured of excellent service.

You could say Japanese people are punctual, they keep time to the last possible second. You have to leave your “African timing” mindset the moment you set foot on the plane. Even for social functions you can’t be late, you call to apologize if you are going to be 5 minutes late, not like in Kenya where friends will call you 30 minutes later to tell you they are stuck in traffic.

Japanese people don’t take risks. 

Herein lies their Archilles’ heel, if you ask me. For example if I go into a phone shop to ask for a SIM card, and this is the first time a foreigner is walking in to buy a SIM card, the attendant will ask their supervisor what to do. If the supervisor has no experience with foreigners, he will refer to the manual, they have a manual for every little procedure you can think of! If there is nothing in the manual, he may call his boss who will then check his manual, if this boss finds nothing he will call his boss.. and so on and so forth. Sometimes I joke that in the end they call the prime minister just to avoid risks by making any new decisions. Or ANY decisions. Japanese workers DO NOT make any decisions, they just do what they are told or what the manual says they should do. Decision making is only left to those whose role explicitly states “decision maker” but I bet even they too have a manual. So it’s like they don’t think for themselves, a robot nation  that worked well for when Japan was rising and rising and it needed workers for its massive corporations. But the tide is slowly turning and an innovative and changing society is how nations can cope with the current economic situation.

Japanese people don’t know how to loosen up, to let go, to have fun. Oh sure, they have izakayas (bars that are like boring locals) but it is not fun to just sit and drink, you need to get up and dance Japanese people. And I don’t mean the graceful sashaying of geishas that can put the most restless child to sleep; no, like shake your bodies mugiithi-style, or Jacob-Zuma style. Shake that booty, shake that belly, shake those shoulders, shake it, shake it. Shake your problems away. You can find nightclubs in the big cities but they clubs are fewer, perhaps located in “shaky/scary” neighbourhoods, so dance clubs are not a big a culture. By contrast in Kenya, there is dancing every pub/club, even some locals. When the alcohol in your blood reaches certain levels, your body catches the tune of the music and you move your body to the real or imagined tune. You don’t even have to be drunk to dance, look at our weddings, and funerals, and other celebrations, even Sunday mass/church services – I guess the holy spirit is at work here?

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the ceremony of his nth wife

Jacob Zuma shows how it is done during the wedding ceremony of his nth wife. I am sure I will never see a public figure dancing, in public, in Japan.

No one knows how to have fun like Africans do. Perhaps South Americans come close.. but in spite of our problems and our bottom-of-the-economic-pile status, we don’t let that get to us. In contrast Japanese people may not want to talk about their problems, don’t have a way to let loose or perhaps “pray to God” which is what we do a lot, “we leave that to God”. They will walk with the weight of their problems into Mount Fuji’s suicide forest, never to be seen alive again.

If a Japanese person loses honour, it is a big shame not only to you but to your family as well. Some Japanese politicians have in the past committed suicide after being named in corruption scandals. A worthy politician in Kenya has several scandals under his “experience” belt. Kenyan (African) politicians simply have no capacity for embarrassment or shame. In my mother tongue I would say, mbabwati egesokero.

Japanese People are conservative. They don’t question authority. I have never seen a march/protest of any kind, perhaps there is nothing to protest about? I have never heard of a union of workers. Most of the Japanese people I know in formal employment work long hours. In spite of its technological advancement, I think that socially/culturally there is no room for even a little personal freedom.

There are no babies out of wedlock. Such a thing is unheard of. If a girl gets pregnant before marriage, she has to have an abortion (or get married), abortion is legal for many reasons including economic ones. See, a society that is liberal enough to allow for abortion should also be liberal enough to accept babies born to unwed parents, no? Single parenthood is virtually unheard of.

Which brings me to the family situation. An interesting fact is usually, the man’s salary will go into the wife’s account; normally a woman will stop working once she gets married to take care of the family. Therefore it is the woman who manages the money for bills, school fees, rent, and the husband’s expenditure, she determines who gets how much. They say this is the reason that Japan’s literacy rate is close to 100%, women are better fund managers and no mother is going to waste money on drinking with the mboys (Kenyans you feel me?) while school fees has not been paid.

There are no house helps/servants/domestic workers/maids/housekeepers, whatever you may call them; I have never seen a Japanese family worker. Even if you wanted to hire one, it would be too costly, you would rather stay home and pay yourself that money to take care of our own children. There are daycare centers for women who want to work, of course. But I get the feeling that this society expects you to quit your job and raise the kids (after all, if your husband is in formal employment i.e. salary man), he should make enough for the family. US families can afford cheap housekeepers from Latin America (that is what US dramas show) because US is somewhat immigration friendly. Now don’t look at me like that, see US has an immigration policy in the first place. I am not sure that Japan has such a policy that states how it can fill gaps in its employment with foreigners. And the gaps are there, what with the world’s oldest population and general population decrease.

Japan has no immigration policy

I think Japanese people adopt a “tolerant” attitudes towards foreigners, like “aww look at that baby” attitude “when will he grow up”. I get the feeling that they don’t expect you to stay long in Japan, to become “one of them”. You can be born in Japan, grow up here, receive your education in Japanese, adopt Japanese manners, be Japanese in everything except looks, but you will never be accepted as fully Japanese. In contrast, someone born in say, the US, can easily blend in and identify themselves as American. Or British. Or French. Just to show an example. Sure no one is going to force you out! You can stay as long as you like! But there is no plan to open up Japan to immigration, so really there is “no space” for you. Here is an article to illustrate my point: Japan’s ‘no immigration principle’ looking as solid as ever. In short, you are welcome to Japan, but please you can’t stay forever. You can never become Japanese. Oh you can get citizenship and permanent residency but never the intangible “I am Japanese” feeling, how can you, when no Japanese would ever identify you as one of them..

This should not be mistaken for discrimination or unfriendliness; no as above stated Japanese people are generally kind and friendly and tolerant to foreigners (who are coming for a short stay). I am Kenyan in culture, race etc so no, I do not want to become Japanese. However, I worry about my son. He is just 2 years old and I will soon be bringing him to Japan. We will stay here for at least 3 years for the duration of my PhD. If I do stay longer, what kind of life will he have in a “no immigration” “homogeneous” “Japanese is one-race” place? If he were to grow up here, he will speak Japanese as his main language, have Japanese friends, absorb Japanese mannerisms and culture; but he will never be Japanese. Anyway what I am saying is, I am a citizen of the world and I will stay where there is a good opportunity to make a change etc, but my main consideration is bringing up a happy and successful child.

What Else?

Over 3,000 words! Pat yourself on the back for reaching here. There could be more but I will write that as time goes by, for instance the bureaucracy, the multiple form-filling for any simple service, ATMs that don’t operate 24-hours, the complicated process of renting a private apartment, the manga culture,  etc. I suppose this makes Japan as safe as it is now so there are trade-offs.

Apologies if I sounded whiny or critical of this wonderful nation and its distinctive people, I do love it here! Opinions here are my own and I could be wrong. I have only been here for about 9 months so I am no expert.

Next time someone asks me “How is Japan” I will just send them a link to this blog post. I doubt they will ever repeat that question to me, ever!

Thanks for reading.

Tokyo

Over the winter holiday, I went to Tokyo to see the New York of Japan (for some reason I kept calling it New York).

One thing for me defines Tokyo. It is not the skyscrapers,  not crowds of people with a number of foreign faces bobbing through… it’s the trains. Tokyo has an expansive railway that is the lifeline of the place. Coming from Nairobi where there is only one railway line, serving only a few routes, I was really impressed by the railway network in Tokyo.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route.

The Nairobi Commuter Train Route. Image from www.jambonairobi.co.ke

The subway was up to 7 floors down.. on each floor below the ground, there was a different line running. I was actually excited to be riding the subway, riding a tube under the ground was like being in the future 🙂 Bear in mind that the map below is just the subway, the (normal) railway line, JR East, is not included.

The Tokyo Train Map.

The Tokyo Metro Map. Image from http://www.wa-pedia.com/

The Journey to and From

Japan’s total area may be less than Kenya’s, but it is a series of islands stretched wide and long. So moving from one part of Japan to another takes quite some time actually, it will take a number of days (driving or train) to move from Hokkaido in the North to Okinawa in the South. It takes about 4 hours by train from Kanazawa City to Tokyo, but 2 hours by the Shinkansen (bullet train) which one can take from April this year. Trains are not so cheap, it costs about 10,000 Yen (Ksh 8,000) one way! However, there was an offer by JR Railway where 5 people buy a ticket for about 10,000 Yen but only using local trains. We went to Tokyo in a group of 10 people, used only local trains (stopping at every small station along the way),  and transferring a total of 6 times. We took 11 hours to Tokyo, having watched Japan’s beautiful countryside in winter. Coming back, I took a night bus for about 8 hours and slept through most of the journey back.

Japan countryside in winter

Japan countryside in winter. Much of the countryside was covered in a beautiful layer of white.

At one of the transfer stations along the way

At one of the transfer stations along the way

Sometimes we caught a glimpse of the sea.

A glimpse of the Japan sea

A glimpse of the Japan sea

In Nagano,  a renowned ski area, the snow was window-high and if it continued then it would soon be over 2 meters high. Perfect for skiing and snowboarding. I hope I can go skiing or snowboarding end of this month or early the next.

Look at the height of the snow!

Look at the height of the snow!

Chiba

Chiba is a neighbouring prefecture of Tokyo. I met a number of Kenyans living there, including my friend Anthony with whom I got the MEXT Scholarship. He taught me how to ride a bike (it has been embarrassing to admit that I don’t know how to ride a bike, but now that is behind me!).

The Edogawa river in Matsudo, Chiba

The Edogawa River in Matsudo, Chiba

We traveled on the 23rd and on Christmas, had dinner in at Australian restaurant in Chiba. the portion sizes were huge. We told ourselves, “ganbarimashoo”,  the Japanese expression for let’s do our best!

Christmas dinner was a feast at an Australian restaurant in Chiba

Christmas dinner was a feast at an Australian restaurant in Chiba

Odaiba

This place is famous for various sights such as its giant robot (my camera doesn’t take good photos at night so I couldn’t capture this well), the rainbow bridge, a replica of the statue of liberty, a beautiful walk near the sea and various illuminations during the festivals, among other sights and sounds.

Illumination at Odaiba

Illumination at Odaiba

The statue of liberty at Odaiba

The Statue of Liberty at Odaiba

The Rainbow Bridge is beautiful.

The rainbow bridge in Odaiba

The rainbow bridge in Odaiba

Tsukuba Kenyan party

On another day, I joined Kenyans having a party at Tsukuba at the JICA center there. Tsukuba is a city in Ibaraki prefecture next to Tokyo. The road there was beautiful in winter, I am sure it will look great in spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming on the trees lining the road below. There was ugali, sukuma wiki and chicken stew, there was pilau, chapati and beef  (just writing this is making me salivate). We also attempted some nyama choma (barbecue), braving the cold outside. A good time was had by all!

The road to Tsukuba

The road to Tsukuba

Shinjuku

This area in Tokyo is defined by its skyscrapers. Exiting West from the Shinjuku Station is like being in the West side of Moi Avenue in Nairobi. Exit East and you walk into a multitude of people, and it is here that I first saw a homeless man living in a tunnel! He surrounded himself with cardboard boxes and warm blankets, and he appeared to be staring at some poster in his hand.

During the earthquake in 2011, these skyscrapers were swaying from side to side ( you can even hear the sounds they make as they sway, watch this video if you are strong enough), a testament to Japan’s engineering ingenuity. If they were inflexible, they would crumble from the pressure of the quake!

Shinjuku Illumination

Shinjuku Illumination

Skyscrapers in Shinjuku

Skyscrapers in Shinjuku

Fascinated by the building below:

Shinjuku skyline

Shinjuku skyline

Tokyo Sky Tree

This is the second highest structure in the world (after the Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates), standing at 634m high (picture 600 meters on the ground.. seen it? Okay, then make that vertical and you can picture what you are looking at). However, as a standalone tower, it is the highest in the world. I wanted to get up there, and take in the areal view of Tokyo. However on the day I went, there was a multitude of people, and we were told to come back 3 hours later, to start queuing! We gave up.  I will be in Japan for the next 3 years at least, so I will save some places for next time.

My friend managed to go up however, and you can check out her breathtaking pictures of Tokyo’s skyline here.

On a related note, if the Japanese got a very thin, long wire and added it to the top of the Sky Tree, it could go back to being the highest structure in the world, no? When will Kenya make a remarkable contribution to the world’s skyline? Now that we discovered oil, isn’t it high time?

The Tokyo Sky Tree jutting into the Sky, highest tower in the world.

The Tokyo Sky Tree jutting into the Sky, highest tower in the world.

Roppongi

Of course no trip to Tokyo is complete without a visit to its entertainment district! Somewhat dodgy, a little dangerous I hear, but otherwise fun. However, we went on a Tuesday evening and were told the dance clubs are closed until Thursdays onwards. There were lot of sports bars though.. Irish, British.. the British pub we went to was run by this guy who is half Japanese, half Ghanaian.  On that day, there didn’t seem to be much happening so after one drink and a round of darts, we left. Trains in Tokyo don’t run all night, they stop at midnight. So if you want to party you must be ready to stay till morning, or take a (fairly expensive) cab home. Anyway, place earmarked for next time 🙂

At the end of the 8 days, I was actually glad to get on the bus and go back to my fairly quiet city of Kanazawa. I had missed it.

And that dear readers, is my winter holiday report. Now rate it below.

 

The Ishikawa Zoo

(There are times as a blogger (writer) when you will be sitting at your computer, fingers poised over the keys, cursor blinking, and a hot cup of coffee/tea or cold beer/wine just within reach, but the words just won’t come. The mood is right, the time is right but the words are stuck in your mind. Sometimes you give up altogether, and switch to other mundane stuff, like watching videos of The Real Househelps of Kawangware on Youtube. And then you ask yourself, whom am I writing for? Then I finally realized that I am not writing for you readers (sorry!) but for myself and now my mind is finally free, I can write more easily. On that note then, back to blogging.)

There is a class I am taking, there are actually two classes I am taking that are not compulsory (but they somewhat are). One of them is a free-conversation class, just a class for Japanese students to meet international students and vice-versa. We do fun activities like Christmas parties and presentations about each other’s countries. In the last week of classes last year, we had a visit to the Ishikawa Zoo which is about 30 minutes from here.

The visit to the zoo was interesting and depressing all at the same time. I think this is my first visit to a zoo, does the Nairobi Orphanage counts as one? I was impressed by its diversity. Despite its small size (relative to our wildlife parks), there was a wide range of animals (the number was not much, but the variety was big), from birds to tropical reptiles, to fish to bigger animals like the giraffe and even an elephant! However, while the smaller animals  and the aquatic ones seemed to thrive, the bigger animals and the primates seemed lonely and and their sadness was tangible and infectious.

It was a beautiful winter day at the zoo and we walked around in groups of about 5 people each admiring the animals (plants, maybe not so much).

Ishikawa Zoo

Ishikawa Zoo

There was a lion lying in the weak winter sun trying to bask in vain. Now that is not something you see everyday, an African lion in snow. You get the feeling that it isn’t right, it should be roaming the extensive Savannah plains of Africa, running freely in pursuit of its meal or lazing with the pride under a tree licking its jaws and giving a satisfied roar. Instead, it lay there just beyond the glass and when it saw us, turned and gave us its back! But before that it gave a thundering roar that would have been scary were it not for the glass between us. But maybe it’s a lion that grew up in an orphanage or in a zoo and does not know what life in the wild looks like, and might not survive there, I comforted myself. But does it feel the call of the wild, a thought persisted? Judging from its roar, it probably did.

Lion at the Ishikawa Zoo

Lion at the Ishikawa Zoo

The lion giving us its back

The lion giving us its back

We had gone to the lair of the big cats first, so we saw a lioness in a tiny room where we could peer at her up close, but no good stills of her were possible as she paced restlessly up and down. The tiger in the next stall also paced up and down as if in synergy or is it resonance. By contrast, the leopard in the next stall sat still in a depressed stance, barely blinking as we gaped and took photos.

The lioness paced up and down her cage

The lioness paced up and down her cage, she couldn’t be still

The tiger(or tigress) in the next room paced too

The tiger(or tigress) in the next room paced too

Clearly photography is not my strong suit but then the best place for photographing animals is in the wild

The next subject was more still. Too still if you ask me.

The sad leopard

The sad leopard

Wait, not all the animals at the zoo were sad! The snow leopard was cheery, running around its habitat and sometimes ambling silently over our heads. We had to stare at him through the glassy ceiling as he (or she) also sought some sun.

The snow leopard at the Ishikawa zoo

The snow leopard was more cheerful, thankfully!

After that, the mood grew lighter as we saw numerous other small animals playing, eating or just sleeping.

Cute and sleeping

Cute and sleeping

We then stepped into what was a recreated tropical rainforest environment, complete with the heat and humidity. The vegetation, fish and animals are all thriving in the artificial micro-climate.

The python looks really comfortable up on that tree

The python looks really comfortable up on that tree

And resting below is the giant Iguana lizard, I didn’t know it’s name and had to ask on twitter. Thanks for the answer, 

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at, it seems to be asking. I guess the vegeterian meal wasn’t so satisfying?

There were penguins being cute, and rodents called Capybara that are the largest rodent in the world. These love being in hot baths and they had and even had a running jacuzzi (ofuron/onsen), very convenient in winter, don’t you think?

Kapibara at the zoo

Kapibara at the zoo. That’s what their name reads in Katakana. (Capybara)

Penguins at the Kanazawa zoo

Penguins at the Kanazawa zoo

Lots of birds, but you know.. caged birds. Amazingly, they have also at the zoo a giraffe and an Asian elephant. However they were too huge for the tiny rooms they were housed and being behind metal bars.. I am not even going to share their photos. Instead, look below at this fantastic image from Mutua Matheka’s blog of an elephant in Ambosel! After that, continue visiting the website to download new wallpapers every Monday or even using the Android App.

Elephant in Amboseli

Elephant in Amboseli

The seals were really fun to watch. They did flips in water and swam with grace. We watched one being fed fish and it seems as if it was also being taught something (not sure what) as it was patiently fed one fish after another. Initially, I assumed they were sea lions and had to Google to see the difference, learning a lot in the process.

A seal swimming

A seal swimming

Feeding of the seal:

A seal being fed at the Ishikawa zoo

A seal being fed at the Ishikawa zoo

Can you believe all that lasted just an hour? There was no time to linger at the zoo, it was a touch and go (or glance and go) moment, and it was a lovely experience, sad animals notwithstanding!

When was the last time you went on a class tour?

The Noto Peninsula Trip

This post is long overdue!

I know Japan is a series of islands, but I only got to see the sea the Saturday before last. After landing in Osaka, I took the train to Kanazawa, my current city, and since then I have spent most of my time exploring it and its residents. There is always something interesting, from class parties to snow falling early in December (isn’t it beautiful), to meeting Kenyans and having my hair plaited, to cooking various gourmet meals (as the solo consumer, I can tell you they are delicious), to sampling various wines and finally learning the difference between Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Moscato, to going to church for the first time in 5 years (my mother would be so happy) to trips various places. Follow me on Instagram already!

It's cold but beautiful snow is the compensation. This is the path to school, formerly in autumn colours, now all white.

It’s cold but beautiful snow is the compensation. This is the path to school, formerly in autumn colours, now all white.

On Saturday 29th, the International House where I stay organized a trip to Noto Peninsula for its residents. Chartered tour bus with a guide, doesn’t matter the guided tour was in Japanese. We had a translator who did a pretty good job while we dozed in the heated bus. We were served coffee in the bus, and were welcomed into it with juice/water/tea/milk tea.. whatever you wanted. It took about 2 hours by bus from Kanazawa to Peninsula but the view of the ocean was worth it. It was like the last day of autumn, that Saturday. It was rainy in the morning but later in the afternoon, the sun shone and it was quite warm.

Noto peninsula

Noto peninsula

The first stop was Kiriko Lantern Museum. During summer festivals, they (the Japanese) will walk with these lamps through the streets. Inside the museum, the lights are low and the lamps are lit, and it was breath-taking. There were various lamps on display and their history was also explained, mostly in Japanese.

I captured a few bad pictures, so they cannot do the place justice!

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

Kiriko Lantern Museum

We then had an early lunch, and for the Japanese (and many other societies), a meal is not just about the taste but the presentation is also important. Observe. Wonder. Proceed to dig in. おいしい。 The beautiful container down-left contains the rice.

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch at Noto Peninsula

Lunch swiftly dealt with, we went to the rice fields of Noto where they still use traditional cultivation methods as the fields are too small for machine use.  The sea is always beautiful no matter where you look at it from, large, ominous, goes on forever..

The sea goes on forever

The sea goes on forever

The sea goes on forever

The sea goes on forever. The rice fields at Noto Peninsula

The sea goes on forever

The sea goes on forever

The last stop of the day was a traditional tie and dye workshop where we got to make our own handkerchiefs. Once white, now permanently coloured in various patterns.

The white is before, the blue and the rest is what we aspire to make

The white is before, the blue and the rest is what we aspire to make

Boiling the handkerchiefs in the dye

Boiling the handkerchiefs in the dye

Boiling the dye

Boiling the dye

The end result

The end result

As we made our way back, we stopped by Noto Airport, a small airport where we watched a plane land. I have watched planes take off but never the landing, it was exciting! After that, we waved at disembarking passengers, I am sure they were wondering if we were nuts! Well, in our defense we had seen some other Japanese waving too, but probably to their families!

X marks the spot where it will land. Well, not x exactly.

X marks the spot where it will land. Well, not x exactly.

It was a day well spent. I look forward to the lantern festival in the summer.

For now, the focus is on staying warm. And learning Japanese. So don’t worry if you don’t read a post from me in a week, a lot is happening in a relatively quiet city, but there is no time to put it all in writing.

じゃ、またね!

The Kaga Tour

Japan is very welcoming to foreign students. Well, I have never been a foreign student elsewhere, but I am sure in Kenya, we don’t give free passes to our National Parks and Heritage Sites to the foreign students there (or do we?), nor do we offer free tours to visit said places. We currently have student passes to visit parks and museums around Kanazawa City so we don’t have to pay any entrance fee.

This past Saturday, I was among a group of about 30 foreign students from various universities invited by the Ishikawa Prefecture Tourism Strategy Department International Exchange Division (I am not kidding) to visit the Kaga area. The schedule was sent like 2 weeks in advance to our emails, and later a printed schedule was also sent to our mailboxes.

This past Saturday was a beautiful autumn day. The day was warm, the sun shone brightly, the clouds stayed away. Perfect weather.

Kutani Ceramics Center

Kutani ceramics center

At the Kutani ceramics center

After assembling and beginning the journey from the station, the first stop was the Kutani ceramics center. Here, ceramic dishes and other objects are beautifully decorated/painted, after which they are fired up in modern kilns (although we were shown a traditional wooden kilns where temperatures could reach as high as 900deg Celcius). You will remember in the previous post, the artwork engraved into the tea bowls? We were given our own dishes to decorate, some brushes and some water paints. Yours truly was gifted many things, but art was never one of them. Un-originally, I painted our Kenyan flag colours.

The back of my dish

On the back of the dish is my current university name (Kanazawa University) and my name in Katakana, and the date. They will send us the dishes when they have been fired.

Here is the front of the dishes. No marks for guessing which one is mine!

The painted dishes

The painted dishes. I can even see Sponge Bob somewhere there!

And some guys are real artists:

Given a chance, would you have been this good?

Given a chance, would you have been this good?

From the ceramics center, we headed for an early lunch and the menu had been sent to us beforehand. I had a set of udon, and rice with pork cutlets and what-else on top. Nevertheless, it was totally delicious and despite it being 11:30am, I did not have a problem finishing it all.

Lunch was delicious

Lunch was delicious

Natadera Temple

This is an ancient (Indian-Buddhist?) temple built long ago and currently restored. It is surrounded by beautiful gardens and we had a chance to wander around. It was a beautiful day (I know I am repeating myself but it’s true) and although I couldn’t walk as much as I wanted (I injured my ankles exercising but that is a story for another day), I sat down on a park bench and enjoyed the autumn colours and the feel of the sun on my face. I was happy.

Below are some pictures from Natadera Temple and gardens.

We stand and stare in awe at the temple

We stand and stare in awe at the temple

The gardens surrounding the temple. Breathtaking.

The gardens surrounding the temple. Breathtaking.

Can you see the caves? I couldn't make my way up there due to the pain in both ankles but I was content with the view!

Can you see the caves? I couldn’t make my way up there due to the pain in both ankles but I was content with the view!

Serenity

Serenity

After about an hour at Natadera, we again got into the bus and drove to Yamanaka-bushi. This area is famed for its onsen but unfortunately we did not have time for even a quick dip. Which reminds, I recently went to an onsen (less of the hotspring variety, more of a public bath) and that is also a tale for another day.

Yamanaka-bushi and Kakusenkei Gorge

We walked the length of the beautiful gorge, about 800 meters, crossed it and walked along the other side until we could cross another bridge and complete the loop. The colours were so brilliant. The gorge, was gorgeous.

Tall trees with colour foliage dominated the landscape, and a beautiful river ran at the bottom of the gorge

Tall trees with colour foliage dominated the landscape, and a beautiful river ran at the bottom of the gorge

Tall trees with colour foliage dominated the landscape, and a beautiful river ran at the bottom of the gorge

Tall trees with colour foliage dominated the landscape, and a beautiful river ran at the bottom of the gorge

The beautiful river

The beautiful river

A beautiful street

A beautiful street

The beautiful bridge that signified the end of the walk

The beautiful bridge that signified the end of the walk

The view from the bridge down to the gorge below.

The view from the bridge down to the gorge below.

Back to Yamanaka-bushi. There was a folk dance and we were given free tickets to by performances by Yamanaka geishas.

Japanese dancing is not in the least like African dancing, I can surely confirm that. While we move to the rhythm of the drums, the Geisha dancing was more to the rhythm of the shamisen. The thumping of a West African drum would induce me to jump in and shake my body, the melancholic tune from the shamisen, coupled with a long day of walking, soothed me into an uncomfortable nap while upright in my chair. The graceful hand movements of the geishas and careful shuffling of feet added to this effect. The lights in the hall were of course, turned down low. Who can resist? The fight went out of me, and my eyelids drooped.

A geisha plays the shamisen

A geisha plays the shamisen. Image from wikipedia

The last act, was that of a mask dance. There was a tiger’s head and body, and this time I was awake throughout as it went through the motions of the dance. When it was done, I was surprised to find the masked ladies doing all the acrobatics were not as young as I thought. I am truly impressed and hope to be as flexible and fit when I am their age!

We couldn’t take photos during the performances, but we did take photos with the performers after. A beautiful evening and a good time was had by all.

The geishas take photos with the international students

The geishas take photos with the international students

At around 5:30 p.m., it was dusk and we got into the bus to start the short ride back to Kanazawa City.  I had a wonderful time.

There are many more pictures that I took, and other people took, but no time to share them all. There are a few more or less on my Instagram account.

This coming Saturday, I have yet another trip to make. Don’t miss out on the next post 🙂 Watch this space

Japan’s Traditional Villages: Shirakawago and Takayama

Last week, we had a class trip to see the UNESCO Heritage Site of Shirakawago Villages. On the way there, we stopped at Takayama (I hope I remember this correctly) for a taste of what was ahead. Takayama is a smaller village of fewer houses, but no less magnificent.

The journey from Kanazawa to Shirakawago took about 3 hours by bus. The journey itself was quite interesting. Driving through the Japanese countryside in autumn is really breathtaking. The trees in the mountain forests are in an array of colours, the mountains themselves are magnificent even on a cloudy day, and we drove through on roads that seemed on the very edge of the mountains, imagine looking out of the window only to see a deep valley below! If you have driven through the Mai Mahiu range on the way to Naivasha or Narok, you know what I am talking about. And that drive lasts about 30 minutes to an hour, but picture it lasting 3 hours. The beauty of the landscape would be every photographer’s dream, Mutua Matheka, are you reading this? I cannot do it justice in my photos.

The magnificent village of Shirakawago in Japan

The magnificent village of Shirakawago in Japan

What is more, the changing seasons means that you can photograph the place all year round. In winter when everything is covered in white (snow); in the spring as the cherry blossoms bloom all over Japan; in the summer as the sun shines bright and in autumn, the current season, when trees are in golden colours. I would love to visit these traditional villages in winter and if my budget allows it, maybe stay for the night.

The river at Shirakawage Village

The river at Shirakawage Village

One thing about Japan is its strictness when it comes to garbage. At the villages, if you have plastic garbage, you have to go back with it. They can take recyclable garbage like cans or bottles, and combustible garbage like paper, but if you have plastic and metal junk, you have to carry it back with you. The whole of Japan is anal about garbage disposal anyway, consequently, it is a very clean country.

The air in the villages is refreshingly cool, clean and crisp. There are some people still living in these villages and you can only envy their simple life, save for the hordes of visitors poking their vehicles into their village every day.

One of the houses in Takayama Village on the way there..

One of the houses in Takayama Village on the way there..

So I have a few pictures of the trip to show to you. My current class consists of fellow foreign students who are also studying Japanese. The pictures are in no way touched up, I have no time or patience to edit pictures, the only thing I did was reduce their size (MB) because they were like 5MB. This greatly reduced their quality, but hope you will still enjoy. View the slide show by clicking on one image.

 

I Cooked!

I landed in Japan on 1st of October and on 1st of November I was having a late lunch with my new friends at the nearby AEON foodcourt when we realized a month had passed already! In that one month, I have become so tired of the school cafeteria meals. So I went shopping for utensils and food to cook.

Generally, I am not a fan of cooking, although I love eating very much. I cook out of necessity and not the mere pleasure in the art of preparing the meal, but for this one time, I was totally excited and couldn’t wait to make my first meal in Japan. I got all my food (rice, fish, onions, tomatoes, etc..) from AEON (very big supermarket), as the fresh fish (food) market is 20 minutes by bus away.

How to prepare the fish? I wondered. I Googled some recipes but some were suggesting I broil it. I had to Google broiling but unfortunately I have neither an oven nor a broiler. That was when I remembered LeoTunapika run by my good friend, at least I could understand the ingredients and methods she uses, and could ask her for clarification if need be. So I decided to stew it, it looked quite simple, stewing fish in coconut milk. However, I did not have coconut milk but you will see how I solved this problem (and ended up ruining the stew) later. As for vegetables, my plan was to sprinkle some of them into the stew so they cook together, save energy, time and at the same time enhancing the stew flavour. Genius! So here is my recipe.

Recipe: Fish in No-Coconot Milk (Serves 2)

Ingredients: fish cut into pieces, onions, tomatoes, carrots, assorted veges, any other thing you want to include.

Ingredients for Fish Stew

Ingredients for Fish Stew

Method

Defrost the fish, and while it is defrosting..

Cut up the onions, tomatoes, etc..

First, fry the onions in low (or is it medium, do whatever feels right) heat

Frying onions

Frying onions in low heat

Next, cut up the tomatoes and carrots and add them when the onions have cooked.

Tomatoes and carrots on a chopping board

Tomatoes and carrots on a chopping board

Trying to do this like a pro.. so here is a close up of chopped carrots haha

Trying to do this like a pro.. so here is a close up of chopped carrots haha

Detour: Do you guys know how hard it is to take pictures while cooking? I nearly dropped my phone into the stew, into the sink or onto the electric cooking pan!

Next, add the chopped stuff into the onions and let them cook for a few minutes.

Cooking

Looks nice, huh?

Do you remember the assorted vegetables? So I got this pack of already chopped veges.. cabbages, carrots, mushrooms and some sea weed that’s a popular vegetable here. I picked a few and added to the pot.

Vegetables

Vegetables

Time to add them in:

Vegetable stew

Vegetable stew

Now, the next step is very critical.

Whatever you do, DO NOT substitute cow milk for coconut milk! I got this idea from home, because from time to time we add milk to fish stew and it is delicious. However, when I added the milk, it went sour immediately, sticking to the sides of the pot. I had come too far so I wanted to know how the end result will taste like.

Salt the fish lightly, then add the pieces into the stew. Let it simmer for a while.

Letting the whole mixture stew

Letting the whole mixture stew for a while until the fish is cooked

Next, cook the rice. No recipe here! Just boil the rice, add some salt and a little oil.

I cannot multitask, generally speaking. I am the exception that proves the rule that all women can multitask. So I prepared the fish first, then the rice. However, it’s better to start with the rice, then as it requires no intervention while cooking, stew the fish so it all cooks around the same time.

After I set the rice to boil, I remembered then that I had some pilau masala I ought to have added to the stew. I added it to the rice instead to add some flavour: Japanese rice is sticky and tasteless, I miss pishori rice.

Pilau masala

Pilau masala

Now it was time to wait for the rice to be ready. I decided to set the table with my new crockery and cutlery. The wine can also be sipped as you wait for the rice to cook.

Fruits are really expensive in Japan. One apple costs like 250 Ksh. The cheapest are bananas at Ksh 150 for 3 bananas! This is bananas!

Setting the table

Setting the table. I included the chopsticks, they are quite an art in themselves.

Finally, bring in the food for that final picture. Serve half, if you are alone, and save the rest for lunch/dinner the following day. Don’t forget to say the grace. In Japan, they say, itadakimas(u). Also, don’t forget to post on Instagram.

Dinner is served

Dinner is served

Verdict: It was average. The milk ruined the sauce, but the fish was tasty. The rice with some masala was OK. All washed down with wine, it was the perfect first meal!