The obedience of rain

 

In Japan, if the weather forecast says it’s going to rain, then it rains, and if the forecast says it won’t rain, then it doesn’t.

Having spent time in both Norfolk and Malaysia, where it rains if it feels like it, and nobody has any idea what the weather will be like in five minutes, let alone five days, I am in awe of the skill of these meteorologists.  But then this is Japan, where everyone and everything follows the rules, including the weather.

As soon as it starts to rain, a little man appears at every road junction –

– dressed in waterproofs and wielding a baton, he swings into action as soon as the green man appears on the crossing sign.  He stands on the crossing to stop any motorists, blinded by the drizzle, from mowing down the pedestrians on the crossing.

I wondered what these men do when it’s not raining – because there must be thousands of them across the country.  But at least they know well in advance when they’ll be needed, thanks to the forecast.

I also couldn’t help thinking that if there was a list of the countries where you’re most likely to get run over on a pedestrian crossing, Japan wouldn’t be on it.  Instead, it would be top of the list of countries where you’re least likely to be flattened mid-crossing.

And it’s not just the rain that’s organised – the people are too.

Everyone has an umbrella, which is produced when the first raindrops appear, and neatly furled whenever they’re not using it, like when they’re on the train, regardless of how wet and soggy it is.  I felt very under-dressed with my skanky old Ikea brolley, so had to go out and buy a smarter one after my first rainy day.

Once you get to work, or to a shop, there’s a special umbrella drying machine –

– so you queue up in an orderly way to dry your umbrella –

– and then hang it on the special umbrella rack –

In case you hadn’t noticed, this is a country that does detail in a big, big way.

 

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My new favourite city – Kyoto

I’ve had three weekends in Japan so far, and have chosen to spend two of them in Kyoto;  I absolutely adore it there.  Everything is exquisite – the temples, the gardens, the little streets with wooden houses, the little waterways lined with cherry trees, the tiny craft studios and cafes – it has to be one of the most picturesque cities in the world.

My first visit coincided with peak cherry blossom viewing, so I went to the park which is the place to see the blossom, and headed for the most famous cherry tree in Kyoto –

It’s a huge old tree, which everyone wants to be photographed in front of.  I sat and watched it as the sun started to set, and there was even a stall selling pink fizz just to complete the pink experience –

There were hundred of girls in kimonos, with various accessories, having their picture taken in front of the blossom –

or in other picturesque locations –

– and even Little Bo-Peep had left her sheep for the day to come and send a few texts from a blossomy bridge –

One thing I’ve learnt on my travels is: if there’s a queue, get on the end of it, as it invariably leads to something either delicious or interesting.  So when I saw this line inside a temple –

I immediately jumped onto the end and stood patiently, wondering what we were waiting for.  It turned out to be a queue to look at a particular cherry tree through an attractively shaped window –

I hadn’t realised until then, that individual cherry trees could become celebrities in their own right.

But I was also very taken with the raked patterns in the gravel, and since that first experience, I’ve become a tad obsessed with raked zen gardens, and have a hundred photos just to prove it …

Swirls and lines –

A subtle design with perfect symmetry –

A bold stripe seen through another window – without a queue this time –

This one is supposed to evoke mountains, but looks more like an upturned flowerpot to me –

Or working with nature to enhance and harmonise –

I was smitten with these gardens and had decided to create my very own zen garden, until I read a book on Kyoto

– and decided that perhaps I’ll stick to admiring other people’s efforts instead.

Or …

– sweeping seems to be a possible alternative, for those unable to commit to years of  training.  Admittedly sweeping doesn’t have the cachet of raking, but it’s extremely worthy and much easier to master.

Then I’ll sit on my immaculately swept path and admire the view –

or sit and marvel at my pristine stepping stones –

As Goethe said, ‘Let everyone sweep in front of his own door and the whole world will be clean.’  I think he would have approved of Japan.

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Kyoto – getting naked with the natives

I decided to hop on a bullet train and spend my first weekend in Japan in Kyoto.  It’s about 90 miles away, but as the train gets up to 175 mph, the journey only takes 35 minutes and there’s a train every ten minutes or so – what an amazing service!  It’s fairly expensive – £28 for a single ticket on Friday, and £36 to get back on Sunday – but the trains are immaculately clean, with reclining seats and a snack trolley, and of course they are on time, down to the very last second.

When I got to my hotel, I was thrilled and terrified in equal measure to discover that they had a sento – a public bath – for their guests to enjoy.  I knew I’d have to try one some time while I’m in Japan – I just didn’t realise it would be quite so soon.

The receptionist gave me an etiquette sheet, which I studied carefully –

The leaflet also explained how the Japanese manage to be so efficient; they appear to have 25 hours in their day, unlike the rest of us.

Once I’d read it, it was time to go … before I changed my mind.  So I put on the special shoes –

– and changed into the special pyjamas for wearing to and from the sento

– and I was good to go.

The baths are strictly segregated, which is apparently a modern phenomenon, and mixed bathing used to be the norm.  I can’t yet understand how people who are so modest that even a millimetre of cleavage is unacceptable, will quite happily strip off and show all their saggy, flabby bits to friends and strangers alike.  I have to confess that I was very relieved that my first sento experience was in front of total strangers – but most women there were in groups, chatting away unconcernedly together.

I used my colour-coded female room key to open the door, took a deep breath and walked in.  The changing room was full of women dressing, undressing, sitting at vanity tables with hair dryers – just like any old gym.  So this bit was easy – I undressed and locked my basket of clothes in a locker.

Then came the difficult part.  I opened the door to the sento, which was like opening the door into a sauna, and could see all the women doing the pre-bathing wash at the showers around the edges of the room.  They all had a white wash cloth, and I didn’t – but a very kind woman rinsed hers out and gave it to me, so I felt less of a conspicuous newbie.

I knew from the etiquette sheet that you mustn’t splash your neighbours when showering, but that’s quite difficult, as the wash stations are all quite close together –

I found this pic online, just to show you, as there is obviously no photography allowed inside the sento.

Once I was scrubbed clean, I went down the steps into the large bath, carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone else.  I was surprised by how hot is was, but there are two levels of seating, so you can be immersed up to your neck, or just to your waist, or even sit on the edge and just dangle your legs in the water.

Once I’d sat down, an elderly lady came over and sat beside me and struck up a conversation.  So there we were, discussing her grandson who’s at university in Nagoya, just as though we were at any social occasion – the only difference was that we didn’t have any clothes on.

I was a little disconcerted that she had a small towel plonked at a rakish angle on her head, and it stayed there the whole time she was talking to me.  I wondered if she was perhaps a little eccentric or confused, but afterwards I found a very good website, Sento For Beginners, which explained that you must never put a towel or your head in the water, so people often put the towel on their head to keep it out of the way.

After ten minutes of sweating and conversation, I got out, showered again and got dressed, feeling a great sense of achievement.

And you know what?  I went back the next day and did it all again.  So now I feel that I’m practically a sento pro.

 

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Yay! It’s Cherry blossom time!

I arrived in Japan on Tuesday, and I have to say that it’s a lot more foreign than Malaysia.  On the bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya I felt just like Harry Potter on the Hogwart’s Express when the trolley lady arrived with the refreshment trolley; I had absolutely no idea what anything was, and as she spoke no English and I speak no Japanese, there was no way of finding out.  I scanned the boxes desperately, looking for a clue, but there’s no English writing, and everything is triple-wrapped, so you can’t even see what’s inside the box.  All I could do was select one at random, and once I’d fought my way into it, it turned out to be a beef cutlet sandwich – perfectly fine, but not necessarily what I’d have chosen.  At least I don’t have specific dietary requirements or food allergies; that would turn a difficult situation into a nightmare.

But once I arived in Nagoya, I had two very nice surprises:

1.  I have a hot bot loo, complete with washing and drying programmes

– it’s great fun – but you have to make sure you sit right at the back, unless you actually want to wash your jumper at the same time.

2. I live within walking distance of the castle and castle park in Nagoya, which are the places for cherry blossom in town, and it’s the peak viewing time for cherry blossom here at the moment, which is something that’s been on my bucket list for ever.

So on my free day yesterday, of course I strolled down to the park to enjoy the sakura

I was thrilled to see the families and groups of friends all sitting enjoying a picnic under the blossoms, just as I’d been told they do –

I was surprised to see that some groups were obviously work colleagues who’d come to spend their lunch hour sitting on a tarpaulin under the trees in their suit and tie.  Apparently some firms give their employees time off to go and picnic under the blossom – the event even has its own name  – Hanami.

But having already spent time in Asia, I wasn’t surprised at the number of photos being taken.  I soon got the hang of the requirements – you either hold a blossom-laden branch close to your face –

or you pick a few flowers and put them in your hair –

And if you haven’t brought your own photographer, there’s always the tried and tested selfie to fall back on –

or – for a bit of one upmanship – why not choreograph your very own cherry blossom dance? …

She kicked off her shoes and leapt onto someone else’s picnic tarpaulin, that the poor man was trying to sweep clean, and then proceeded to twirl with abandon while her adoring husband filmed her.

It was all getting too exciting in the park, so I went off to see the castle.

It was built by a shogun in the 17th Century, but flattened in 1945, so it’s  mainly a reconstruction – although some of the towers seem to be original, judging by the rickety stairs I climbed up to get a view from the top floor –

The Palace, which is inside the castle walls, was refurbished and reopened at the end of last year.  We all shuffled around in our socks admiring the beautiful painted screens and cloisonne work –

I was interested to note that the castle has a Ninja of the day –

and I saw one of them – or at least I think I did –

– but looking a lot scarier than on the poster.

I discovered that the hardcore cherry blossom posers were all inside the castle grounds too –

I just hope those kimonos are warm, as there was a very cold wind blowing.

 

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