Sayōnara, Nihon

That was a very enjoyable five weeks in Japan. We’re now on our way to the next exciting destination: Fiji. I’m writing this at Narita Airport, Tokyo, before we hand in the Pocket Wifi. Then, we’ll be offline, set adrift, out of touch with the outside world.

Our last full day in Naha entailed a spot of shopping, first at the local arts and crafts shop and later at a more conventional shopping arcade. We could have spent far longer here in Naha, in wider Okinawa even, but I think we agree, it’s been a nice relaxing final week in Japan. Liesel knows how to plan a trip, thanks!

Selfie of the day in front of the chip shop

Liesel enjoyed a bag of cheesey chips at a shop devoted to potato chips, but not as we know them, Jim: there was a tomato flavouring too.

We passed a Monkey Bar with Monkey Girls inside but didn’t go in. There are, apparently, spider monkeys to play with while you eat your meal. Somehow, we’ve managed to avoid dining with and/or petting monkeys, dogs, cats, hedgehogs, owls, and otters since we’ve been here, and we’re not too sure about the place with dead snakes outside in jars, either.

Sadly, not girls in monkey suits

We went up to the roof garden of the shopping arcade which was ok, apart from, this was where the smokers gravitate. There were instructions on how to become a smoker, what skills are involved, and a bin for the dog ends.

Holy smoke!
Best view from the roof garden, Naha

We had a meal, a Japanese one, and again, it was disappointing. I showed the lady my crib sheet saying, “I’m a veggie, no meat, no fish”, she appeared to understand, but my noodles were still polluted by meat. I thought the dish smelt meaty but Liesel convinced me that it was just strong cabbage.

On the other hand, here in Narita Airport, we’ve just had a lovely vegan meal, Japanese in style, but no animal products.

Many restaurants display their offerings in the window, the plastic food often looks quite realistic.

Plastic food

Usually in restaurants, Liesel and I sit opposite each other. We’ll be given one copy of the menu to share, so we both read it sideways. It’s great that often, we are given an English version: I can’t imagine English restaurants going to the trouble of producing separate, say, Japanese menus. Some staff have a basic grasp of English, certainly superior to our Japanese, but not all: maybe 50-50.

If it weren’t for the fact that most food here is fish or meat based, I’m sure we would have eaten in Japanese restaurants more often. But even a basic meals such as pasta, mozzarella and tomato sauce came with free lumps of bacon in it. And, not that I am an expert on pig meat, not very nice looking bacon either, mostly fat, maybe 25% actual meat.

Usually the bill is left on your table when the meal is delivered. If you order dessert or coffee, you receive a second bill. It’s all added up at the till on the way out. I wonder how often the second bill is ‘forgotten’?

One thing we like is that tipping does not take place. Top service is given all the time, it’s what they’re paid for. If you try to tip, for exceptional service, the implication is that they usually don’t give such good service, and that is considered insulting.

Sometimes, it’s quite a long wait before you’re served and then another long time before the meal arrives. But so what? Just because we expect instant service at home doesn’t mean we shouldn’t learn to be more relaxed and patient here. Equally, we don’t get pestered to vacate the premises as soon as we’ve finished the last mouthful to make room for the next customers.

The streets of Naha are very narrow, not wide enough for pavements in some cases. Not even wide enough to paint a white line to separate pedestrians from vehicles!

Narrow street in Naha at night

And so to bed for our final time in Japan. We videoed a bedtime story for Martha and William and proceeded to have a restless night.

I’d lightened my bag by throwing away all the unnecessary paperwork, but it was still hard to zip up. Again. Our host had requested that we leave our bag of rubbish by the door of the flat below. I hope this was a mutual arrangement, and that we haven’t inadvertently contributed to generations of conflict and strife between two rival families.

Today is the day of the annual Naha Marathon. This is Japan’s biggest with about 30,000 runners coping with 25°C at 9am! We wished them all good luck as we set off on our own, easier marathon.

Early leaders in the Marathon

They were supported by Darth Vader and some Startroopers which seemed strangely appropriate. One thing we’ve noticed in Japan is that, if there are marshals telling you where to walk to avoid roadworks, or where to park in a car park, they’ll often be using sticks that light up. I don’t know if they’re, strictly speaking, ‘light sabres’ but I bet they have a good time when they return to base!

Stormtroopers
A man with his light sabre

At Naha Airport, there is a moving walkway, a travellator, that confuses some people. Well, me. If there’s nobody on it, you can’t tell whether it’s moving or not, because it’s not split into individual segments, it’s just one very big rubber band. That’s a tip for you: beware joke travellators.

Is it moving? Can you tell?

It was good to see that the Marathon was being covered on TV, but during the few minutes I watched at the airport, I didn’t see any non-Japanese runners. Mo Farah may have been here, but I didn’t see him.

The plane was half an hour late taking off due to excess traffic at the airport. That’ll be all the buses taking passengers to the aircraft from the departure gates, then! I boarded before Liesel because I had the window seat and window seat passengers board first, here, today. Always different.

One of Okinawa’s 363 islands

Two hours or so later, we landed here at Narita. I was hoping we’d fly over Tokyo, or at least see it and of course, I was hoping to see Mount Fuji one more time. But in the end, the approach to Narita was pretty good to look at.

Looking good, approaching Narita
Tee time

We posted some items at the post office and then left our big bags in the coin lockers while we ate our late lunch. Coin lockers have been a very useful facility at airports and railway stations, for leaving heavy bags while we explore. Well worth the money, so it’s worth keeping some loose change when you’re in Japan. Somehow, we acquired some Chinese and some American coins in our change. I think these must have been given in change from a vending machine, grrr, I’m pretty sure people in shops wouldn’t give us the wrong coins like that.

We’ve found the public transport systems here in Japan to be fantastic: yes, we’ve made a couple of mistakes and been frustrated by not understanding the system fully, but the service itself has been terrific. Trains, Shinkansen, buses, Yui monorail, ferries, even internal flights have all been a positive experience.

The trains run on time. They employ people at railway stations to adjust the clocks according to when the trains arrive. No, not really, but they could. We’ve only encountered a couple of delays, and one of them was due to an accident. The signage is is several languages, including English, which is good for us: but without that, maybe we would have been more diligent in trying to learn some of the language, written at least.

One thing we did have a problem with was that if you’re going to a particular destination, you really need to know the final stop for that train, because that’s the name you look out for. In some places, there is a rapid service, a semi-rapid service and a local service, one which stops at every station. So you also need to check that you’re on the correct type of train.

Platforms are marked out to show where the train doors will be. If you have reserved seats on car 3, you know exactly where to stand. On the Yui Rail system, there are footprints painted on the platform to show you where to stand while waiting, and which way to face. If you follow the instructions literally, you would bounce onto the train à la kangaroo.

Don’t trap your claws in the doors!

The buses like their announcements. So much so that occasionally, you hear two voices at the same time, one man, one woman. It’s like the worst possible radio breakfast show combo, except we can’t understand what either of them is saying and the lady isn’t cackling at the bloke’s hilarity. Sometimes, the battery runs down, and it sounds like a dalek is talking to you.

The best announcement was on the long bus ride to Emerald Beach. It starts out with birdsong, turns into music and then the lady tells you what the next stop will be. I tried to record this but, you know, sod’s law, after more than five minutes, she just lurched straight into her vocals without the birdsong preamble. Very disappointing.

Travelling on buses with backpacks on our backs was an experience not to be repeated if we can avoid it. On airport shuttles, it’s probably accepted, but I dread to think how many elderly Japanese ladies I’ve backpacked off a bus merely by turning round. Actually, I find it hard to wear a backpack in the first place. Some muscle in my neck really doesn’t like being stretched in that way.

At Kagoshima and Naha airports, for domestic flights, the check-in baggage is screened before you see it disappear behind the scenes. So, if there is an issue, you can discuss it with an officer at the time. You don’t see your bag disappear on the conveyor belt only to have it searched by a sweaty TSA officer who won’t repack it correctly. What a great idea. So it will never be adopted by ‘wastern’ airports.

It was good to see signs assuring us that the X-rays won’t damage camera film up to ISO 1600. Those were the days, when you had to worry about X-rays fogging up your film and messing up your photos.

Most of the country is very clean, not much litter despite the shortage of rubbish bins in many places. Sadly, on Okinawa island, we saw more litter than anywhere else. We also encountered our first lump of discarded dog shit. Very close to a children’s playground. Very sad to see, but I can live with one disgusting, antisocial dog owner every five weeks, rather than the dozens we encounter each day at home.

In Tokyo, most of the vending machines had litter bins close by. You’re supposed to consume your product straightaway and discard the packaging. Or, take it away completely. Eating and drinking while walking along is frowned upon and very rarely seen, probably just us foreigners, out of habit.

Walking along the pavements, or sidewalks, is very usually very pleasant. Smoking is prohibited while walking, and you’re unlucky if you pass too close to a designated smoking area. I remember the first discarded cigarette butt I saw at a train station a couple of weeks ago. In Tokyo, the rule was to keep left, but that’s not universal. You share pavements with cyclists and nobody’s bothered. Except when a teenage boy comes hurtling at you out of the blue – but this only happened once.

It is sad to see so many American shops here: McDonalds, Starbucks, 7-Eleven, Hard Rock Café, useful though they sometimes are, and a lot of American and European fashion shops. Which is strange, because Japanese clothing is so much more elegant than ours. Maybe it’s just the novelty. But we’ve seen very few locals who we would describe as scruffy. Liesel has more of an eye for that sort of thing than I do, but she hasn’t really mentioned scruffy dressers. Some people’s shoes are funny though. The sumo wrestler with his platforms. Actual platforms, like little wooden pallets.

She’s got diamonds on the tops of her shoes

Some behaviours that I thought were just British turn out to be more universal. Like standing around and chatting in doorways. Like getting off a moving escalator and stopping dead to decide where to go next. Like not walking in a straight line along the pavement. Girls especially do like taking pictures of each other and there are some facial expressions that have caught on here too, duck lip pouts (not sure of the technical term), V-fingers at various angles. It seems that using a mobile phone renders the user unable to walk in a straight line, even though there’s a nice wide yellow stripe on the pavement to follow. And sad to say that even here, it’s mostly little old ladies who queue for ages in a supermarket, wait for everything to be scanned, see the bill and then, and only then, start fishing in the depths of their bags for the money.

Kawaii, the idea of Japanes cuteness, is adorable. Usually. Little 3-year olds being blessed look really cute in their grown-up outfits. Grown-up ladies look fabulous in their kimonos. Some of the cartoon characters can only be described as cute with those big old Asian eyes. Pastel colours will always remind us of our childhoods. But sometimes, just sometimes, it goes too far. At one place, we had a very nice kettle. It was half white and half pastel pink. The shape was very curvy. Very cute, But the spout was wrong. A proper spout points away from the kettle so that it pours without dribbling. To give a more aerodynamic, cute shape, the spout of this kettle bent inwards towards the top. So, you had to tilt it further than normal to pour water out, and then, when you put it upright again, it dribbled. Water dribbling? That’s not really a problem in someone else’s house, you might be thinking. But this is boiling water, remember and it’s dribbling down my leg. Looks cute, but zero points for usefulness.

Airbnb places here are a bit hit and miss. They’re great for a few days but not for a longer period. Imagine a kitchen without running hot water, or without a draining board, or without a work surface, or without cooking utensils or cutlery. We’ve had all those. Imagine a toilet with a seat that wants to toast your derrière rather than just warm it up a bit. Or a small useless bathtub. We’ve had those. Places with little to no storage, no seats to sit on, no tables or shelves to put stuff on. We’ve been there. But I think everyone has had a TV set. Everyone has had an air con/heating sytem, which we’re just getting used to being able to control after several weeks, as the controls only have Japanese text on the buttons.

Hotel rooms are smaller here than anywhere else we’ve been. I think every hotel bed has had one side right against the wall. Again, very little space to spread out, no wardrobe, no worktop, no chairs.

Toilets in Japan, well, I’ve written about them before. And yes, the second-worst ever invention (after car alarms) is the little ‘lid’ they have above the toilet roll. What’s it there for? The paper is perforated so you don’t need a straight edge to tear it against. (Yes, the perforations aren’t that good sometimes, so you get most of the sheet but then a long trail of thin toilet paper is left behind.) It just gets in the way when you can’t immediately see the edge, so you have to lift the lid, roll the roll around and around until you find the edge again. All this while you’re sitting there, business complete, trying to be quiet because the door between you and the person in the next room is very thin and might even have a grill in the bottom half. And as for all those controls, bidet, front wash, back wash, harder, softer, heated seat, hotter, cooler, auto flush or not, all that technology built in to a toilet that’s squeezed into the smallest possible space. We’ve made notes on what we need should we ever remodel our bathroom now we have a good idea of what works and what doesn’t.

And so here we are, waiting for our flight to appear on the board so we can retrieve our luggage, check in and then look forward to an eight-hour flight, overnight. We’ll reconnect with a Fijian pocket wifi device as soon as we can.

Over and out, for now.

Author: mickandlieselsantics

We are a married couple, married to each other, one American, one Brit, one male, one female, neither of us as fit as we would like to be, over 109 years old altogether.

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