In a very against the wind decision – I mean they opened 30 new destinations in the past year – and due to some high end pressure, Osaka is no longer a destination of the company I work for. Fortunate as I am, I got the last chance to see the place on company money, the gift of seeing Japan for the very first time, in the last operating month and with a day off down route.
The flight from Doha to Osaka is (was) around 10 hours and coming back around 11 plus. There are some particularities about Japanese flight as there are some about the vast and impressive Japanese culture and some companies – I know Etihad for sure – do special training for Japan flights.
Yet again I go back to my high school Japanese teacher – I know I kept writing about a high school teacher of Art, Art History, Religion History, Philosophy etc. and now Japanese. Oh well, all those teachers are one person. Extremely punctual, a great teacher, one that I will remember for the rest of my life. A model and person to look up to – what a real teacher should be.
So, did I study Japanese? Yes, 10 years ago, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7-8 AM, for one year and at the end I wrote beautiful paragraphs on different themes. At that time we also learned about the culture and a bit of history of Japanese.
When I studied Japanese I was at my craziest days. Party non-stop, studying, having the burden of choosing a degree.
And I’m still wandering how would it all been if I decided not to study university. Humiliated, laughed at, pointed with the finger? For sure, especially coming from a highly academic family and environment and from a society in which everybody goes to uni.
Probably I would have been richer, but I don’t regret a thing.
Well, it took me 10 more years to see them in their home, Japan.
It was the first flight I saw they offer Japanese tray and European tray and crazy should you be not to at least try the first one since you are going to Japan anyway. If there’s any left for you, because they’re gone in a blink of an eye.
The kid in me loved to play with all the small pouches with wasabi, soy sauce, noodle sauce and other unidentified flavors, just an introduction and appetizer to the great cuisine in Japan. What’s so special about the Japanese tray? Well you get Cha Soba (green tea Soba noodles = green noodles looking like green spaghetti), Japanese beef with nishiki rice, sticks instead of cutlery, sushi laid on a vegetable salad and all the necessary condiments and sauces. So much fun and so healthy!
February 29th 2016, Osaka, Japan
It’s still winter and it’s freezing at somewhere under 10 degrees. I checked the weather and there supposed to be 3 degrees in Kyoto where I’m going tomorrow.
We reached the hotel, the Grand Hyatt around late evening and inspected the huge, luxurious, all green marble, double leveled, with a sphere in the middle going down to the underground level on huge semi-circular wide stairs. This place is exactly what I like in a hotel – wide places to unwind and walk, all looking cozy and inviting, unattended areas with couches and desks, looking like a mansion rather than a hotel. I appreciated the ultra large window walls of the ground floor and the modern art works in the lobby.
My room is at the 10th or 20th floor or anywhere in between, but…surprise! The contrast between the palace looking lobby and the modesty of the room is frapping. I have a double room with small and very very low beds with no head board or anyway a very simple one. A desk and two chairs right next to the big window – that’s a plus. Ultra complicated automated stuff in the restroom. The bathrobe a green tea color with black small graphics kimono. The elevator all Japanese indications of floor. Cherry blossom in a huge black vase on a glass table in the welcome area.
Out for dinner through the fierce cold and the bitter wind. Everything is written in Japanese and that’s it. At least there’s pictures and I know sake is sake. Same simple design of the room in the restaurant where myself, a colleague of mine and the two friendly pilots chose to dine. They are from Asian countries and all have been before in Japan, so not that surprised as me at all the small details and types of food.
I ordered a cherry sake and find out there is cold sake and hot sake, but really, I went for cold which came with ice and was amazing. For the food I just picked one of the writings there and got a big bowl with beef and noodles and a fried egg on top, some green stuff. Delicious and I ate with the sticks, a skill learned in a one month long trip to China in 2004.
I had just arrived from a 3 day trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam the morning before the flight and during the lunch I found out the captain on this Osaka flight was also travelling as passenger on my other flight. The impressive world of aviation…so many special people around, so many synchronicities. What is that? Oh well…the story of my life.
A supermarket can give you the sense of the culture in one country. It might not be a deep place, but it’s representative. What you find there is what people buy, what they eat, what they drink. The magazines section is colorful and lovely because I’m only looking at the colors and signs.
I buy one Clear Asahi and one Suntory. They’re beers. I’ve heard about Asahi Super Dry, but the ones I bought I just picked because of the very colorful and cherry blossom design of the huge cans. Just like the States ones.
I drink one by my window size window looking at the Osaka Bay and I’m thinking of how lucky I am. And reevaluating my opinion on my beds. Reminding myself of the declaration of the CEO of Japan Airline (one of top 10), who travels by the city bus, lines up for lunch at the company cafeteria and who does not think he’s strange at all. In 2007 he made $90000, less than his pilots, but he thinks that’s not a big deal. So, when he heard that some American airline CEOs make up to $200 million a year he said: Haaaa! The interviewer asked if he could imagine making that much? Aaaa, nonono. When employees were forced to retire early, he cut his income and renounced the corporate benefits and says Japanese companies do not pursue money first.
March 1st 2016, Osaka, Japan
I’m up with the sun in the Osaka Bay. After wearing my dark blue with Japanese flowers big print and yellow thick knitted cotton sweater, I look a bit at the Origami book in the lobby and I’m off to Osaka Station, from where I will take the train to Kyoto.
Osaka Station is the fourth busiest station in the world and serves a little less than 3 million people a day. It is huge and you can easily get lost in the many floors, exits to the city, numerous shops and restaurants. A city inside the city. The Japanese restaurants are lovely and very simple in design, with light wood low chairs by the bar looking table. The cook stays behind and all areas are opened. Most of the food is displayed, so you see exactly how what you want will look like. The shop sells everything from sweets and drinks to electronics and it looks much more colorful and interesting than the regular shops. I don’t know any of the products and nor can I read.
Everything is well organized and although it’s all written in Japanese, you cannot get lost. To Kyoto there is an Express and a Local train and the Express takes around 40 minutes. The station and how people behave is a lesson in itself to the rest of the world. Some wagons are for women only, which I was not expecting to find here since I’m coming from the Middle East. The style of the youngsters is charming and had some chic elements and the middle ages are dressed simple and sure style, with one color quality pieces.
In Kyoto stop K11 (Karasuma, Kyoto’s Hub). It’s on a fancy street store – Fourth Street – and we get up right to Daimaru Louis Vuitton. This street is taking to Yasaka Shrine (Gion Stop by bus). I decided – by intuition – to go the other way and arrived at Toji Temple (East Temple) stopping at the station with the same name. It’s 1st of March after all and it’s cold. It even started snowing, but some of the cherry blossom flowers are up and spreading pink smiles to all around. Snow and cherry blossom. Sakura. Not even the Japanese girls could believe it when I told them.
Toji Temple dates from year 796 and it was used to protect the nation. It was one of the three Buddhist temples permitted in Kyoto when it was capital and the only one surviving today. The tallest wooden tower in Japan.
All shops are simple and everything around is down to earth, no opulence, not overdoing. Natural colors, wood, bicycles, normal people. Korean girls in kimonos. Lots. Well, around here, on a small street, if you’re early and get a place, a Japanese granny wraps a kimono around you, does your hair and you get transformed in a geisha. Parking lots are on 4 floors with elevators – as you know, space is an issue and land is expensive. In front of a house there are maybe 20 Bonsais.
The streets are almost abandoned and nobody’s walking. It should be lunch break time. And this reminds me how we were in Kyoto around 8 years ago, not the city, but the first and best restaurant with Japanese specific in Bucharest and they served us impeccably, but apologized for not having something…because it is actually lunch break. The paths are asphalted and they’re wide enough for a car to drive, but they’re just for bicycles and pedestrians.
Finally at the Yasaka Shrine (previously Gion Shrine at Gion Station) a Shinto Temple dating since 656. By now it’s snowing seriously and I’m looking at the many girls dressed in kimonos. Even some guys. Some of them are Japanese, not only tourists. I’m in a cream color thick trench with a cream application resembling a sun around the neck. With my asymmetrical haircut hiding my red and cold nose.
Right next to the station in Kyoto there is Kyoto Tower and it has an observation deck. In front of the station there’s perfect lines in which people wait for buses. Every now and then one for them is dressed in a kimono. The station is an architecture jewel, I think. And nobody rushes to the door when they open. First people disembark and then, one by one, according to the already formed waiting lines, board the bus/metro/train. Only in Japan. Late arrivals? Never!
I missed the kimonos for myself because the grannys were overbooked for the day, but I thought I don’t need to wear one and Kyoto was great. Back in Osaka Station at rush hour. Straight to the sushi bar I spotted in the morning. Sushi bar is another new experience and where better to do it than in Japan.
Happiness… means trying something new every day. Like trying a sushi bar for the very first time in Japan. Plus sake.
What an experience! The concept is simple you sit by the bar, the sushi bar and the different types of sushi keep rolling. You take whatever you like and at the end, with a very smart small device that scans your plates you get a receipt which you pay leaving no tips. Haha!
What did I eat? Well, everything I though looked appealing, even though my only bad choice was first. Sushi with something sticky and absolutely horrible to taste. It turned out to be natto gu and I’d recommend you to stay away from it. “Many Japanese are convinced that no foreigner could possibly eat the stuff” (The Connoisseur’s Guide to Sushi: Everything You Need to Know About Sushi by Dave Lowry). So true.
Remember the name: Natto gunkan maki (Natto sushi). But what is it? Fermented soybeans.
I tried the green tea powder, but it’s just not for me. Sake, yes!
What else did I try? Rolled omelette sushi, pork sushi, tuna and raw fish sushi, flounder (a flatfish) sushi, clams sushi, Japanese horse mackerel sushi, sea bream sushi, salmon roe sushi, whitebait fish, okura sushi, negitoro sushi, big eel sushi. Japanese scallops like a fish ribbon. Soy milk and almond jelly sushi. Salmon basil cheese sushi.
What else to eat in Osaka region? Okonomyaki, a cabbage pancake. Uuu…
The surroundings of Osaka Station are pleasant to walk. There’s a circular building similar to the one I saw in Buenos Aires, covered in greenery until the third floor. I like the mix between the new buildings, like the Hilton Hotel and the older buildings with street art – representing two bicycles climbing up a rainbow.
Yes, I’m starting to think about the future and children. And I don’t exclude anything. Don’t think in clichés. Don’t worry too much.
March 2nd 2016, Osaka, Japan
I woke up in my high up room and thought I cannot leave Japan if I don’t wear a kimono, so I get dressed up in the same Japanese flowers big print shirt I was wearing yesterday, but in white and the same big knitted sweater I was wearing yesterday, but in deep purple and rush to the station to take the first train back to Kyoto (both fast train and local train cost 560 yen one way = $5), like yesterday.
Here I am again, on the train to Kyoto to wear the kimono for one day. I’m looking at these Japanese letters I once studied and think how destiny pulled me to the Middle East. And at the unique gift of having the opportunity to see the world, not just being stuck in one place.
Then I change with a bus with no destination. I get off when I see that beautiful kimono shop that I spotted yesterday when I was returning home (the hotel). I think it’s a chain and it has the most beautiful kimonos in Kyoto.
There was no granny here, but a beautiful young Japanese girl who started by fixing my hair. The shop is on a corner and both outside walls are made of glass. The door is opened and although outside is freezing, inside it’s warm and the air is fresh. I applied my own make up with a thin lipstick that I used for the lips, eyes and cheeks and it’s all in the same tone.
Then we get in the spacious changing room where I put my clothes in a travel bag. Because it is quite cold, I keep my pants on and the tank top. I get a under blouse similar to those for skiing to keep me warm and my waist gets wrapped in a sort of 10 cm wide towel. Then I wear an under kimono in light pink which is also wrapped around the waist with some chords. Two sets of socks with the toe separate from the rest of the fingers and the traditional “flip-flops”. Finally the colorful kimono I chose from the big variety they have and a matching purse. The “shield” around the waist and a scarf turned into a pink ribbon in front and a huge decoration in the back. And a purple flower in the sort of Russian inspired hairstyle with a very curvy pattern.
Japan somehow reminds me of Korea, however, I prefer Korea, where I will return at the end of May to meet my mom.
Although most of the girls around are in kimonos, mine catches the eyes of the people. It’s in bright colors – yellow, orange, red, purple and light green, but I think what they look at is my happiness and how relaxed and natural I walk in the kimono. Japanese look at me with some kind of pride. The kimono costs around 4000 yens and then you pay for the hair 1000 and the big ribbon at the back – which is the best part of your kimono – around 1500. With tax you end up paying around $60-70. It’s true I went to the most expensive and most beautiful kimono place, but you can make it for less than half in other places.
Kyoto has so many places to see like the Itsukushima Shrine or Nijo Castle and each type of food and each corner of the town is impressive and beautiful in its own way.
Seeing it in a kimono add to the experience. I felt really pretty and authentic in it and walked around in the wooden flip flops all day. Visited temples and went for lunch in the kimono.
I appreciated the simplicity of the old part of Kyoto. Travelling lifted my standards but more towards authenticity, which one can enjoy plenty in Kyoto.
For a few days I’m starting thinking again what to do with my life. I want to be able to build bridges, to open blinders. Never say never, but I won’t be able to go back to the normal office job.
2 floor parking lots for bicycles.
I have a repulsion against this very perfect and strict social contract in Japan because it’s exactly the social chains I ran away from. I’m a little traumatized inside maybe.
Bags perfectly tied and arranged in a straight line.
A bit dull and for a Latin, for a Balkan native, for a rebel it’s hell on Earth.
It was good for understanding their culture, but it’s much to say understanding, because us, the outsiders, will never do. They’re too closed – translate it by too exactly the way they are and nothing will change them from punctuality, politeness, stiffness, maybe rigidity – and don’t care of the ways of others, without being ignorant.
Children walk two by two, by the wall. Posh ladies finishing work or university for the day. This girl next to me on the train back to Osaka has the remove before flight red flag. I miss flying already! How will I ever quit this job?
11s everywhere. Over 20. In just two-three days, here in Japan.
On the train from Kyoto to Osaka after having worn a kimono all day. Going mentally over my to-do list. This is crazy life indeed. Marking 8 destinations this short month of February and getting ready for at least 5 next month.
Yet, I’ll be slowing down a little bit, arranging my life. The major aspects, never forget about those.
I can’t believe today – what one day means for me since I wake up until I shut down – I traveled from Osaka to Kyoto, wore a kimono and visited temples, ate in an old traditional restaurant, returned to Osaka, did some shopping, packed my bags, operated a 12 hours flight and am still alive and walking.
February was my craziest month so far: started off in Beijing, continued with three crazy days in Bangkok, snorkeled in Maldives, did some training, flew to Milan, saw the rice fields in Bali, breathed the air I love and bought lovely abayas in Beirut, partied hard in Vietnam and wore a kimono in Osaka. All bucket list, all new experiences. I was waiting for March to calm me down and…my flight changed when I arrived from Osaka and after I wake up, I off to Perth. No slow life for me, I realized. No guided tours either. So, March, let’s see what you can do.