This is part 2 of the blog post about Japan. Click here for part 1.
A thousand bows
The Japanese must be the most orderly people on the planet. Train passengers line up neatly in designated spots and allow riders to disembark before boarding. Arrows on the sidewalk indicate which side you should walk on. People taking the escalator stand single file on the left (in Kyoto, it’s the right) to allow those in a hurry to pass.
Every worker seems to have a uniform, which is worn proudly. Bus drivers wear white gloves. Traffic control officers have enormous hats. Train cleaners wear pink aprons with little frills. Businessmen wear a black suit and white shirt. Nobody wears sweat pants in public.
Bicycles are popular in the city, yet there are few bike racks. Riders park their bicycles on kickstands, evenly spaced in designated sidewalk zone, with their front wheels angled neatly in the same direction. None are locked, really, except with flimsy c-clamps over their front wheels to prevent them from being rolled away. Theft is rare in Japan, I learn. To steal is shameful.
Kabuki is an art form incorporating spoken theatre, music played on traditional instruments, and dance. Mike and I discover that attending Kabuki is a serious commitment, as we settle into our seats in Kyoto’s purpose-built theatre for the four-hour show.
The performances (there are three in sequence) are captivating. The simple storylines are relatively easy to follow, and the elaborate costumes and makeup fantastic. All of the actors are men, with some specializing in female roles. The female characters move with tiny graceful steps, wear flowing silk robes, and speak in a peculiar falsetto. The male characters speak in booming voices punctuated with alarming squeaks and shouts.
The atmosphere is quite sophisticated, reminiscent of an evening at the opera. At the same time, the feeling is casual, with men shouting out from the audience and people eating boxed lunches in their seats. We surprise ourselves by staying to watch all three performances, and I can now understand why some Kabuki stars are idolized celebrities.
Bathing in an onsen
A hot spring bath in Japan is called “onsen”, and there are entire resort towns build around them. We go to Shibu Onsen, a relatively remote village near Nagano that is, of course, accessible by train. We arrive at our Ryukan (traditional Japanese hotel) 10 minutes late to a distressed owner whose schedule has been thrown into disarray by our tardiness. After mentally rescheduling his evening, he shows us every detail of our room—these are the light switches, this is the air conditioner, here are the various slippers and sandals you must wear depending on where you are and what bodily function you are performing, etc.—and then he ushers us downstairs for our meal.
The admittedly hefty price of our accommodation includes breakfast and dinner in the kaiseki style (see Mike’s blog post about the food), so by the time we’re done we’re stuffed and satisfied. We then don the provided robes and wooden clogs and head out to sample the many public bathhouses that dot the nearby streets. Like everything in Japan, there is protocol. Men and women bathe separately—you must bathe nude—those with tattoos may not bathe (because you’re probably in the mafia)—you must splash yourself with onsen water before getting in the bath.
Our first attempt to bathe elicits yelps of pain as the scalding water delaminates the skin on our feet and legs. The water is very hot—50°C, supposedly—and we find it necessary to introduce a steady stream of cold water to make it bearable. Japanese men of all ages bathe with us, undeterred by the heat, their skin turning the colour of a red grape (I look more like a cooked lobster). When we can no longer bear it, we escape back into the cool air of the street wearing our robes and clogs, and I vow not to go back in. The experience is intoxicating, though, and we find ourselves clip-clopping down the street to the next onsen for just one more dip.
Monkeys, too, can bathe
Several kilometers outside of Shibu Onsen along a wooded path, the local macaque population—colloquially called “snow monkeys”—have their own onsen. The snow falls thick and endures well into spring here, so the local troupe of snow monkeys descends the mountainside daily to bathe in the natural hot springs and escape the cold. A ticket office and gift shop have of course been constructed to service the tourists who come to see them, and the temperature of the pools is adjusted with cold river water to suit the monkeys’ seasonal preference. The park staff scatter pine nuts as further enticement. When we visit there are dozens of macaques lolling about, alternating between eating nuts, grooming one another, and unwinding in the hot tub.
Having learned that their human observers are harmless, the monkeys seem utterly disinterested in the hundred or so tourists who have come to see them. Japanese tourists outnumber everyone else (just like in Canada). Unburdened by the luggage weight restrictions inherent in international travel, some have dragged along an entire film studio’s worth of camera equipment, including, in one case, a professional video camera with a wind-screened boom microphone and HD preview monitor. In the gift shop, the winning photo from last year’s annual competition is on display—a snow monkey holding a mislaid iPhone up to its face while it bathes.
Osaka and onward
After a relaxing two days of good food, onsen, and nature-watching, Mike and I go our separate ways, he to Tokyo to catch a flight home to Vancouver, and I to Osaka to catch a ferry to China. I have only 10 days to get from Japan to Uzbekistan, a journey of about 7000 kilometers across a region unaccustomed to tourists. To make things more difficult, I have to pick up two visas on the way, for Iran and Turkmenistan—two of the most difficult for Westerners to obtain. Any mistakes, and my attempt to circumnavigate the globe could be foiled.