Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Japanese Immersion Day (Nikko part 1)

We spent most of yesterday immersed in Japanese culture and language. The day started at 5 AM when we woke up way too early to catch a train to Tokyo Station (the busiest station in the world), to then catch another train to go to the other side of Tokyo (Shinjuko Station, near our Tokyo hotel), to then catch a 2 hour train north to Nikko. Nikko is a small town in Japan that is steeped in history.


Our lunch was a traditional Japanese meal.  The meal was beautifully presented. There were many different foods, all miniscule portions, but a lot of "all." This meal had a lot of different types of mushrooms as well as fish. Yes, I did try everything at lunch, even the seafood. I might not have finished it all, but I did try it. There was also a lot of soy, which made me quite thirsty.

At the restaurant we encountered our first non-“Western” bathroom. Basically a glorified hole in the ground. Fully clothed, Masumi showed Ashley and I how to squat, including the proper direction to face. We were both pleased to see the sign “Western toilet.” I have a feeling if Ashley has a choice between squatting and holding, she’ll opt to hold it for as long as possible.

Sleeping arrangements (ryokan)

Masumi arranged for us to stay at ryokan. The quickest description of a ryokan
is that it is a Japanese B&B. That barely begins to describe it. The place we stayed in seemed to be on the high end. It was a combination spa and B&B.

Upon arrival we were given a drink while they brought our bags up to our room. Honestly, I would have been happier to go to our rooms first, and then have the drink, but I followed everyone else. The drink also came with a snack. Ashley and I had a sweet treat made from red bean paste. It was tastier than it sounds. It was a candy.

Our room was extremely spacious. We had two separate rooms (a common room and a dining room), plus a foyer, and a private hot bath. The foyer had a stone floor where we were supposed to leave our shoes before stepping on the tatami mats. I, of course, stepped right on the mat wearing my shoes. When not on the tatami mats we were to wear either shoes or the slippers provided for us. In the time we were there we never quite mastered the shoe / barefoot / slipper routine.

We were given this larger room because we had a child with us. When we first arrived, our room did not have beds in it. A woman came in the room and served us tea while we sat on cushions on the floor. The dining room also had a massage chair in it that was completely in Japanese. We had to keep pressing buttons to make it do what we wanted it to do, which in my case was simply to recline to take a nap.

The hotel was very secluded. It was surrounded by beautiful gardens with azaleas in bloom. The fireflies came out after dark. At home we take fireflies for granted, in Japan they are very rare. Our friends had never seen fireflies before. They were surprised to learn we have them in our yard this time of year. Where we were they only fly above the water. (Later in the trip we saw people waiting in a two hour line to see fireflies in Osaka.)

Public Baths

One of the specialties of this hotel is the Japanese public baths. There are a gazillion rules with the baths from the correct way to wear the kimono they provide (right side in first, the other way is reserved for corpses) to how to rinse off beforehand, to all sorts of proper etiquette. As I said our room had a private bath. We still had rules, but we could bathe in privacy. Our bath was on the deck. It seemed odd to go outside in our birthday suits, but it was that secluded that we could. The public baths also included an area for primping, a sauna, an indoor bath and one outside. I wasn’t adventurous enough to use the public bath (not that fond of seeing my friends naked, yes, I’m such an American). Don did try it. Tom guided Don through the gazillion rules, and I’m sure he still managed to mess some up.


Dinner was also Japanese style. They gave us a private room, probably so that we could make fools of ourselves in privacy. Dinner was very similar to lunch. There were probably 30 different foods in tiny portions, from soup to rice to about 20 different types of seafood to different vegetables. We had a wide assortment of appetizers. For the main course we each had a mini wok where we cooked our steak and some of the vegetables.  I was less brave with dinner. I definitely drew the line at anything with a visible face (such as the mini crab). I did try at least half of the seafood. Considering before this trip I only had fish once (while covering a story for the Lawrenceville Patch last summer), this was a big step for me.

Back to our room

When we returned to the room beds magically appeared. We slept on futons (more like fluffy pillows on the floor than the futon I had in my college dorm room). They were surprisingly comfortable, though I am looking forward to sleeping on a bed tonight in Tokyo. We each had a separate futon. Ashley slept on the one in the middle.


Breakfast was another assortment of Japanese food. It included a delicious green salad, the kind we would have with our dinner in the United States. I think the only seafood was a piece of salmon (I tried it but didn’t like it), clam soup (I drank the broth, but did not eat the clams), and dried seaweed (I tasted it, but Don liked it more than I did). Breakfast was served with a vegetable juice (carrots, apples, lemon and something else) There was also a smaller assortment of Japanese food. I was really pleased the meal ended with yogurt. I even ate Ashley’s yogurt.

One of the challenges of a trip such as this one is keeping track of everything. If we go home without leaving anything behind it will be a small miracle. I nearly left the tour book in the bathroom during lunch. I packed our hotel room key (a real key, not a card key) in the suitcase. Don nearly left his sandals behind on the shelf in our room. The shelf also had a bunch of slippers on it, so it easily blended into the mix. Two hotels later and we think we have everything.

PS: I've noticed this is becoming the most visited post from our Japan trip.

More pictures from Nikko

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