We’d thought Japan would be good. We were wrong: it’s fabulous.
China was still very fresh in our memory when we boarded the Japanese ferry in Busan – and realised that suddenly, everything was starting to work better than we’d ever imagined. Trivial things like the ferry boarding process were just simpler and slightly better than normal – never mind the Chinese frustrations. The ferry staff were lined up to bow us onto and off the ferry, and the Japanese port staff waved the ferry goodbye – bemusing but pleasant. Even tiny things like the border crossing seemed to have been carefully designed – more staff than passengers, so no queue; and the bag scan belt had guards at either end, apparently with sole purpose of helping lift our backpacks on and off.
However, it now feels as if we’re neanderthals, shambling around, committing faux-pas at every turn, in a hypercivilised alien society. Though at least they’re very polite and kind about our errors. So far, we have:
- Rubbed chopsticks together (it indicates they’re low quality. In fairness, I was doing it because they were indeed shite and full of splinters. At least I didn’t leave them standing out of the rice – because: reminder of funeral incence)
- Put money on the counter instead of the little money tray when paying (because, dirty)
- Failed to change between room slippers and bathroom slippers, or remove the slippers when stepping onto tatami, or used bare feet with slippers, or left the slippers pointing the wrong way… and many other such slips. (Again – because dirty. Other than pointing the wrong way – they’re left pointing to the door, maybe to politely indicate you won’t stay too long. Or maybe just to all look tidy.)
- Tried to eat the wrong kinds of sushi with chopsticks instead of hands (and vice versa) (hold rice sushi with hands because you can, but don’t hold fish / sashimi – because dirty)
- Tried to dip sushi into soy sauce (in a good sushi place, the chef will have added exactly the right amount and you do not disturb)(also, if you are dipping, don’t dip the rice as we always have)
- Not realised they provide a handy basket to put your bag into so it doesn’t touch the floor (because dirty)
- Bowed far too much, or too little, or incorrectly with hands in prayer position, in response to bows received (still very unclear what the correct level is – there are long articles describing the number of degrees at any point, all ancient matters of samurai history AFAICT. But I’ll really have to stop the prayer-hands: started in Indonesia where it’s normal and finding it impossible to stop. This could get awkward back in London.)
- Walked up escalators (some places don’t like it) – or stood on the wrong side (haven’t figured out what is correct yet; it varies)
Etc. You get the idea. This is an old and very distinctive culture, that does things a bit differently to the rest of the world. Sometimes the change is logical; sometimes not. They decided for over 200 years that they didn’t really like the world, and turned their back on it from about 1630 to mid 1800s – no foreigners or even letters from abroad were allowed in, and they allowed no-one out, under pain of death; the sakoku policy. Notably, they only opened their doors to trade again when forced to at (American) gunpoint, rather than having decided the world was lovely and worth interacting with. They maybe still feel the same: less wholehearted adoption of western culture than anywhere else I’ve been.
Anyway, sakoku covered all Japan, other than Nagasaki, which was our first stop. During the solitude period, there was a tiny area of Nagasaki port which had Dutch factories and trading – largely because the Dutch were seen as focused on trade rather than religious conversion, by comparison with the Portuguese. So it’s considered a much more international city than most of Japan. There’s a handful of old Dutch houses there, plus other international remnants like Portuguese street names and foods like “castella” sponge cake, or ‘toroku’ (Turkish) rice, mixing rice and pasta and deep fried pork.
But we, who adore sushi, wanted to focus on that for our first few days in Japan. Yes, sushi *is* infinitely better here than London. But the experience of it too is so much better! Tiny wooden room, just big enough for maybe a dozen people to sit at the counter and chat with the sushi chef and his wife (usually) as he makes impeccable fresh perfect sushi to order. Wish we spoke enough Japanese to chat properly with the locals: they all seemed to be having a lovely time, and keen to chat with us – but charades and Google Translate only got so far . And they all were very polite as we committed pretty much all the errors above, one after another, on our first evening in Japan. But that food! For the first time, proper wasabi, instead of fake green radish paste – far better! It’s hellish expensive, only grows in very particular places, and goes off minutes after grating it – hence generally unavailable. But it packs a much nicer punch. And, of course, all the sushi is superb. Beautiful rice (apparently, a sushi chef spends years of their 10 years training on rice alone). Amazingly fresh fish, putting all the sushi I’ve ever eaten to shame. Fatty tuna, which I’d have expected to hate, was melt-in-the-mouth wonderful. Salmon roe, which I usually dislike, popped with flavour. Sea urchin, which I’d decided years ago was the second worst thing I’ve ever eaten – fishy flavoured pond slime that made me gag embarrassingly at a dinner with colleagues – turns out to be delicious when it’s proper fresh. It’s just as well that we have no idea what we’re ordering.
Even the cheap joints for lunch set menus, are great. For about £5ish, you get a whole tray of delicious – miso soup, green tea, couple of small plates of assorted pretty pickled or brined vegetables, rice and a main such as a whole tempura fish. We both hate battered fried fish. We loved this. No idea how they do it or why it’s so much better.
Enough about food. Nagasaki is much better known for a much grimmer reason. So we went to the Peace Park – gorgeous, filled with memorials from all over the world, with ruins preserved from the prison which was 50 meters from ground zero and was levelled.
And the Bomb Museum. It was excellent – we were startled to realise we’d spent almost three hours in there: we normally get museum feet pretty quickly, and this is, arguably, a one trick pony of a museum. But what a huge, horrible trick it was. No photos were allowed, but some of the things that caught the attention were:
- A life size model of Fat Man itself, cheerfully yellow and about the size of a very narrow car – pathetically small to have wreaked such devastation
- Huge steel pylons, used to support water tanks, twisted and buckled almost in half from the force of the blast – nearly a kilometer away
- The ‘light shadow’ of a man and ladder, on the side of a wall blackened from the blast: they took the full impact and left a perfect light silhouette where the wall was protected by them
- A lunchbox with some blackened grains of rice, all that was left of one of the schoolgirls in the school a few hundred metres from the centre.
- The narrated story by a girl who was 11 at the time, of how her little sister was trapped in rubble and many neighbours tried to lift it but couldn’t. Then her mother finally returned, having been burned horribly in the blast – and weak as she was, the mother lifted the ruins to free her daughter, using the last of her strength – and died later that evening.
- Clock stopped at 11.02, the moment of the blast, from a few kilometers away
The narrative throughout the museum was excellent – more focused on banning bombs and promoting peace, than casting blame where it might be justified – though it did mention in passing that most authorities reckoned that Japan would have surrendered after Hiroshima.
That evening, a couple of older gentlemen next to us in the restaurant started chatting: one of them had been four at the time of the blast. He didn’t say much about it, but mentioned there weren’t many people of his age around. And it’s true – looking around Nagasaki, you still see very few old people to this day.
Anyway. Here’s a picture of a Miffy dispensing machine instead. Technology put to good use.
Yes, the country has a curious obsession with vending machines of all sorts. Everywhere you go – right up to the top of Mt Fuji – you’ll find drinks vending machines, serving everything from ‘Coke plus’ (a Japan-only variant of coca cola, with added laxative fibre), to Pocari Sweat (still to be tried). The Miffy one above was in a kind of games arcade in a shopping mall – a few video games, a few hundred strange vending machines like ^^^, and many more gambling machines – ‘Pachinko‘, a version of one armed bandit, is very big business here. Gambling is forbidden, but pachinko is permitted for historic reasons as not counting – so around Nagasaki, we saw dozens of huge buildings dedicated to several floors of pachinko.
Also, just on a side street somewhere, this:
Why, yes, since you ask. It is a cat bandana vending machine.
I approve Japan.