What does the last of the housewives do?

Month: January, 2016

Kyoto – Manners and Food

 Japan is a bit of an overwhelming experience in many ways, and many of those ways are hard to pin down. So rather than just give the tourist wrap, I might try picking on a few things that are startlingly different from home sweet home. And the first of these is manners.

There is no graffiti in Kyoto. I haven’t seen any graffiti anywhere, even out of the window of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, in the seedier districts, even in public toilets. Not even a tiny marker pen mark on a hidden stone somewhere. There’s no litter either, even cigarette butts are hardly in evidence. What do the youf here do to rebel?

Everybody rides bikes in Kyoto, it really is a very bike friendly city, and the bike riding illustrates many of the things I’ve noticed. First, you park your bike outside your house. You don’t bother locking it, because people don’t pinch stuff, like graffiti it’s rude. I’ve seen people park their electric car neatly outside a 7-11 equivalent and leave the motor running and the keys in the ignition while they pick up some of the many mystifying products within. When riding a bike along a crowded footpath you do so considerately, weaving among the pedestrians and never once clicking your teeth or rolling your eyes when an elderly man sidesteps in front of you. You patiently wait for him to get back on track, then quietly pass him. When negotiating the excellent bus system, we managed to purchase day passes for a family of five with handfuls of change from a non English speaking bus driver on multiple occasions as people waited to exit behind us (that was the system) and there was never a sigh or a cross look from the driver or the waiting passengers. They don’t even mind when you pay with the equivalent of a hundred dollar bill for a packet of grape sweets.

They seem to employ a lot of public officials. There are the ones who are armed with light sabres whose job it is to enforce the traffic lights at busy intersections, as if anyone would be rude enough to disobey them. There are ones at train stations whose sole occupation appears to be to fill in a fancy uniform and say “arigatou gozaimusu” to as many people as possible. This is far and away the most common phrase in the Japanese language. It’s Thank You Very Much and is used in almost every sentence, along with Kudasai, which is Please. I did hear a mother reprimand her loud child with a sharp “Kudasai!”, so that’s gone into the lexicon and I have had occasion to use it on the Horror a few times, to polite crowd approval. There are signs everywhere exhorting good behaviour, like this one in one of the plentiful public toilets.

Google Translate tells me that all that text just says Don’t Graffiti, but fairly ornately and politely. 

Even the monkeys are polite. They stick to their mountain, they eat the approved food at the approved place, they certainly don’t solicit or harass the tourists, nor do they move down the mountain to go through rubbish bins.

How do you get a society to behave so nicely? Is it Zen Buddhism? Are delinquents quietly removed and shot? I can’t work it out.

On the other hand, manners don’t seem to extend to welcoming the foreign tourist to any great extent. I’m not a cultural imperialist, and I certainly don’t expect most people to have any English, but surely it wouldn’t be a bad idea for the main tourist booth at Kyoto Station to have the odd bit of English? Or the various information desks at the major tourist spots? It certainly helps that they use Arabic numerals, and most of the written train and bus information is also provided (properly) in English. All restaurant menus are either helpfully pictorial or have startlingly lifelike plastic replicas to choose from. But they just don’t seem to be interested in the speaking English themselves. I think most of their non public transport English translation is provided by an old version of Google Translate.  

I feel like going around with a marker pen and correcting it all, but who’s got the time. Anyway, give Google Translate, my new favourite app, another couple of years and it won’t be a problem any more.

So food. I’m rather enjoying going into shops and just wondering what the hell some of this stuff is. Our guide book says that the authors have lived in Japan for decades, yet when they pop into the Nishiki markets,

,they’re hard pressed to determine whether some things are food or a Christmas decoration. Some things are obvious, though.

They don’t mind a bit of seafood on a stick.

But the main issue for us Westerners is that it’s just not obvious what most of the food will taste like, because the Japanese seem to like all the flavours and don’t much care in what order they are. We bought what we thought were rice crackers in the rice cracker section of the supermarket and they turned out to be coated in brown sugar. We’d enjoyed some white buns filled with red bean paste at the markets, so Thermomix sister bought an assortment of these to have at home. Some of them turned out to be filled with meat, delicious once one got over the surprise. And some turned out to be not filled with anything at all, and also not cooked. They were possibly called motchi, were a New Year’s delicacy, were designed to be grilled, and nineteen people had choked to death on them this very New Year’s Eve. Not my favourite.

We popped into a local bar, called Snobby’s, not twenty metres from the house we were staying at in Kyoto to try some of the local sake. It was delicious, far better than the rubbish you get at Japanese restaurants at home, smooth and not too alcoholic. We were served with it, by the extremely hospitable non English speaking barkeep, an array of snacks. Rice crackers, good. Macadamia nuts in the shell, OK, plausible. Thermomix sister was offered what turned out to be some form of extremely chewy nougat, not so great with sake, though the sake did help in eventually dissolving it off her teeth. And I was offered a small roll of very effervescent sweets which were slightly reminiscent of trough lolly. Then there was a plate of tiny fish and another of what could have been pickled seaweed which was rather good. Not like the plate of God knows what we were served with a beer at our most recent train station whose name escapes me.

I was given the impression that it was a local delicacy, large packets of it were being sold at the counter. I did taste it. “What do you do with it?”, asked the husband on his return from his bus transfer recce. “Bury it in an unmarked grave”, was my advice. Took the rest of the beer and a roll of grape Mentos to get rid of the flavour.

My favourite new flavours are red bean – adzuki, and matcha, or green tea. I must find sources for these at home. I know you can get matcha Kit Kats at the Asian market at Birkenhead Point. Gourmet Kit Kats appear to be a thing here.

You could get a packet of mixed fruit Kit Kats in the deli at Daimaru for about twenty five bucks a pop. I’m sticking to the matcha. Just today I discovered matcha au lait. It looks like poison, bright green and frothy, I’ll have to get you a photo of it, and I’m going to have to have one every day.

The Horror has been a bit disappointed to find that the Japanese don’t actually live on cucumber sushi, but he has managed to get a reasonable amount of it into him, principally from train stations and airports where the food is astonishingly good. The snack food available here puts Western countries to shame, and explains why we’ve only actually seen one morbidly obese Japanese person here. Onigiri, a rice triangle wrapped in seaweed with a tiny splodge of flavour in the middle, is my favourite food on the move, and generally costs about $1.50. A bowl of noodles in broth is standard lunch. The chicken nuggets are amazing, even the ones in packets in the frozen section of the supermarket. Everything is in tiny servings in separate plates of bowls and beautifully presented. 

I’m still enjoying being bewildered by almost everything I see in a shop. Muffet went into a chemist to find some nail polish remover, and even though she can read some kanji, she retired defeated. Almost all of the packets and bottles were illustrated by a line drawing of a person with some part of them exploding. It wasn’t clear if the contents were to relieve the explosions in an internal or external fashion, and was an exploding neck indicative of muscle strain or tonsillitis? I’m sure it’s not polite to spend time in shops continually pointing and laughing, but I’m not from around here.

I shall leave you with three last foods to ponder. Noodles on a bun.

Sliced pig snout.

And a bottle of tiny fish.

I’ll tell you all about Kyoto next time, once I’ve gathered my thoughts.


Furano Wrap Up

We’ve had the full Japanese family skiing holiday experience. And it was different from the Australian experience in a number of key areas.

First, the resort. There was no drying area – you just brush the snow from your equipment and clothing as you come in and bung it in your ski locker – one per room. There was no roaring log fire, that was sad. There was really no common area, there were a couple of chairs and a dilapidated lounge near reception where the wifi was, and the kids spent a bit of time there. It wasn’t really clear where the normal families were hanging out.

There was a gift shop which was a constant source of amazement to me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Every time I went in there there was stuff that I hadn’t noticed before and couldn’t quite believe. There was a bit of a hint as to what some families were doing for lunch, a small selection of freeze dried just add boiling water to the bowl meals. There were the local Hokkaido specialties of lavender, rockmelon and potatoes in many forms. Lavender soap (which is currently perfuming my bag).But also lavender chocolate. Dried rockmelon, also rockmelon chocolate, rockmelon caramel, little charms on strings in the shape of a rockmelon with an inexplicable bear’s head sticking out of it. Huge gift boxes of potato chips, some of which were chocolate coated.

I accidentally bought some beef flavoured caramel.

They made a bit of an attempt to speak English, but everything was so well organised and clear that it really wasn’t necessary. And sometimes the attempts weren’t terribly helpful.


And, of course, the snow. It was dry and there was a lot of it. So very very much of it.

That was just one part of the first lift. The runs were so long you’d be thinking “are we there yet?”. The snow was so powdery that you’d see parents digging their kids out of the snow at the side of the run, only the tops of their helmets visible. I had a fall as I went around a chunk of mountain and found myself unexpectedly upside down, helmet in the snow.
We stopped every day for morning tea and thawing out at a little unmanned hut which would be undoubtedly vandalised out of existence in Australia.

It was warm, had toilets and the ubiquitous drink vending machines. Lunch was at the gondola station, we abandoned New Furano on the other side of the mountain as being a bit too adventurous and it was also only accessed by a lift that the Moose dubbed the Rigor Mortis. I’m sure that the shovel by the side of the lifty on the other side was for prising the frozen corpses out of the lift and hoiking them into the woods. It was very scenic though. Because we’re creatures of habit we always had the same thing for lunch, and we discovered how to say it in Japanese. Jun-ya Ra-men. Junior ramen. You poked your money into a machine and chose your meal from the buttons, no chance to ask for no pork or gluten free. Lucky that we love ramen. You’d get a numbered ticket that you give to the nice ladies at the other end of the room and in due course your number would be read out, they’d mark on the ticket if the number was to be read out in English.


It did snow on us every single day except for the first and the morning of the last day, but it wasn’t like the kind of snow you get at Charlotte’s Pass, ie a raging blizzard. It was fairy tale snow that gently drifted down to turn you into a snowman on the chairlift and never ever melted down your neck. It reduce the visibility a little and was a little surprising when a flake got sucked up your nose when you were zipping through the forest, but certainly not anything to be concerned about. -10 degrees was certainly a littler colder than we were used to, but we got the hang of under gloves and scarves and stopping regularly to check that we still had all of our toes.

And, of course, the black runs are different. Not that I’d know from personal experience, but apparently in Australia they are very steep and studded with ice and rocks. Here they are very steep and absolutely full of powder, making it very easy to  lose your skis and do an accidental full somersault if you’re sixteen, resulting in a rousing cheer from watching snowboarders, or lose your skis and pop a calf muscle if you’re somewhat older, resulting in a couple of days of rest, ice, and elevation. Yes, that is supposed to include compression, but the resort first aid kit consisted of some gauze, band aids, antiseptic, and a heart defibrillator and nothing in between.

I do wonder what the experience would have been like in Niseko, where they are a bit more accommodating to Australian tastes, but I would thoroughly recommend the Furano experience. The husband doesn’t though, even though he managed to find a compression thing at the airport at Sapporo, but I think he’s just taking it a little too personally. Maybe I could persuade him to stay at New Furano next time, where they have a chairlift with a hood that stays open until 7.30pm. Not that I want to accept that challenge…