Wednesday, May 23, 2012

A suitcase stuffed with groceries

There I was, lying ever so awkwardly on my ziggurat of sofa cushions, provided by the good people of Haneda airport, struck down by the grandmother of all flues, while three little Japanese kids chased each other around and around my pyramid of leather pillows. The children were playing Zombies versus the-as-of-yet-unaffected, totally unaware of the fact that they were a few feet away from someone actually turning into the un-dead. This was my last day in Tokyo and thankfully only the second day of suffering from the plague.

The rest of my family holiday was pretty damn perfect. On the 18th of December 24 little bottles of Amarula, 8 peppermint-crisps, 2 travel worn parents and one beautiful bottle of Mrs Balls chutney landed at Oita Airport. Roland and I posed for the 1st of fifty million photos and then it was off to show the folks our new hometown. It was fun impressing them with our ATM drawing, Petrol pumping and food ordering skills while they surprised us by eating everything interesting we put in front of them. My dad complained every time he had to put down R50 for a beer but not even this stopped him from ordering two at every restaurant anyway. I was informed by my mom that the one night they slept in Tokyo alone on route to Oita my dad was sent on a food foraging mission and came back with a bread roll (with nothing on it) and a milk beer which he chucked down the drain a moment after tasting it.
Our 1st out-of-town-overnight was the moving city of Hiroshima which we reached via the light fantastic. I have heard the odd I’m-so-over-it foreigner tell me how the shinkansen is really not that exciting but let me tell you as a 1st time flyer, that the Japanese bullet train is a gorgeous piece of engineering that you need to ride at least once in your life.

It sounds cliché, but I really could feel a beautiful duality to Hiroshima the entire time we were there. The city has a way of rushing you through a spectrum of emotions and yet it is so wonderfully balanced that by the end of the day you still feel calm and weirdly filled with hope. In the morning we made our way to the atomic dome and peace park and if there is ever a place that will leave you despondent at human cruelty, this is it. God, it was sad. We can debate all the sides and everyone can put forth their propaganda and argue all they want, at the end of the day so many people had their one chance at life stolen so heartlessly that it gets to you and it really should. And then slowly Hiroshima leaves all that sadness behind and starts turning on the charm. Before you know it you are sitting in a warm, atmospheric okonomiyaki restaurant or walking deserted winter streets lit by thousands of Christmas lights and realising that you are already addicted to the uneasy magic that this city has in spades.

The next pin I could prick into my map of Japan was Kyoto. Sadly my dad caught a bad case of “shrine sickness” that only shopping could cure so Roland, my thankfully more cultured mother and myself headed to 4 or 5 world heritage sites. The day started silver at ginkakugi where my OCD approved of every raked pebble and perfectly placed square of moss and turned gold that afternoon as we admired the spectacular kinkakugi, one of the most famous sites in all of Japan. While my mom had been a trooper all day, the December chill finally got the best of her and so Roland and I took the train to Fushimi Inari shrine, alone. This is the site of the thousand tori gates (those red beams you always see in postcards of Japan) and Roland and I were lucky enough to see it with almost no one else in sight. Sure we lost a bit of toe due to frostbite and the metal in my leg just blatantly refused to bend to my will but even having to manually swing my left leg onto the following step did not make this shrine any less striking. Everywhere the stone fox messengers of the gods sat protecting graves or snacking on the fried tofu left out for them and walking through those thousands of arches covered in Kanji was pretty special. I am never going to give you a good enough picture of this place so feel free to click on this video to see what I am on about. Kyoto Rising Dawn

 And now a little detour, designed entirely to shame my father, who deserves every letter of it. You see Japan’s marketing department will have believe that seeing a Geisha is as easy as strolling into a teahouse, requesting your favourite shamisen tune and getting one of these lovely ladies to flutter over with a cup of green tea. This dear sir is not the case. Still today you need an invitation (usually a pricey one from a Japanese person) or you need to be in Kyoto for the Gion festival where these creatures of culture dance and perform in the streets. The only other way to see a Geisha is if you are lucky enough to catch one shuffling gracefully to or from work. Now imagine if you will how excited the German and I were to spot not only a Geisha but a Maiko (Geisha in training) as well on their way to their 9 to 5 as it were. Now imagine if you will how sad we were to discover that we had left our camera at the hotel. But lo, what silver lining is this? My dad has his new camera and after taking a few photos at a not so annoying distance we happily headed back for a good night’s rest. But lo, what not so silver lining is this? While showing my mom the photos that night my dad deleted every photo and so our Kyoto trip ended, Geisha photo free.

Our last stop over before hitting all the bright lights of Tokyo was Nara, where gangster deer extort rice crackers from you with more than light nudging and where a huge Buddha and pagoda blow a sizable hole in your mind and I think this is a good place to stop. I will talk about Tokyo in a later blog I intend to write about Roland’s parents visit. So I will end off by saying thanks mom and dad for an amazing holiday and that I think of you every time I sip some rooibos tea, spread some chutney on my cottage pie or look at those beautiful photos we took of the Geisha……oh wait, maybe not the last one.

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