For more than two decades I’ve been faced on a daily basis with the assumption that a visibly foreign person can’t understand Japanese. That’s only begun to change in the past handful of years, and now — in Tokyo at least — quite frequently people don’t seem surprised that I can understand them and speak with them. (I still get that “日本語上手ですね” reaction which shows they’re a bit surprised. And yes, I always answer, “まだまだ。。。”)
Just in the past two days, I’ve had an amusing variety of reactions. When I was cycling on Saturday I stopped at a convenience store for some carbo loading. I always make sure to respond to the cashier’s greeting so they know I speak Japanese. Sometimes this saves the time taken up by clerks trying to remember whatever they’re supposed to say in English (and is a lot less frustrating to me).
In this case, the clerk spoke to me in Japanese but combined that with large flourishes and gestures. “Would you like me to heat this up for you?” Gesturing to the cheeseburger and to the microwave. She kept it up for the whole transaction. “Do you want that in separate bags?” Lady, I get it already. I was nearly laughing by the time I left the store. (She really wasn’t sure when I told her I didn’t want to try for the lottery prize, though. It’s usually more trouble than it’s worth: a can of milk tea or a cup of yogurt if I win.)
The second instance came on Sunday, when a traffic cop wasn’t happy with the way I crossed an intersection on my bike via the crosswalk. I was wearing a UV-cut mask and bandana, so she may not have known I was a gaijin when she called me out. But as soon as she spoke to me I took the mask off (in part hoping to put her off). But she just kept speaking to me in Japanese (without broad hand gestures) as if taking it for granted I could understand her. While I was a bit annoyed with her for giving me a lecture (there really was no safety issue with what I’d done), I found it refreshing that she assumed I could understand her (which I could). I thanked her for pointing out the error of my ways, and again when she told me to be careful.
The final instance was a couple of hours later, while I was enjoying a lunch of Nana’s world-famous onigiri while sitting on a park bench in Yokohama. An older woman (checks mirror: yes, she was older) asked if I minded if she sat on the same bench. “Please, go ahead.” I got the standard reaction of surprise I speak Japanese, followed by, “I guess you’ve been here a long time.” She stayed and chatted with me for about five minutes. But if my answers diverged in substance from her questions, she didn’t seem to follow me. For example:
I guess you’ve been here for a long time.
Yes, in fact I’ve been here since the start of the Heisei era.
You know, Heisei … ?
Yes, I’ve been here for a long time.
I guessed it.
You like onigiri, huh?
Yes. They’re really good when I’m biking. Lots of energy. My partner made these fresh for me this morning.
Yes, I love onigiri!
I bet your wife’s Japanese, right? I knew it when I saw those onigiri!
Dear reader, I had specifically said 「パートナー」(partner) …
The illuminated cherry blossoms draw huge crowds to Rikugien every year with their photographically challenging beauty. This year, Nana had an idea to beat the crowds at this 16th Century garden dedicated to the six forms of Chinese poetry: arrive before dusk, enjoy the park and wait for dark.
It was a good idea except for the cold. The temperature never got very high yesterday, and it had fallen to about 8C when we arrived at the park at 4 p.m. Together with the lack of blue skies, it made for a pretty dreary afternoon.
The big draw for the illumination is the park’s famous shidarezakura, or weeping cherry tree (prunus pendula). This giant, planted shortly after the end of the Pacific War, is more than 70 years old and stands at 15m tall. Its branches span more than 20m across the garden.
This year, in the cold and waning light, the tree looked a bit sorry. The blossoms had yet to fully fill out, but the green leaves were already emerging. We took a few snaps and discussed the sorry state of the tree before hurrying on to see the rest of the park.
Rikugien is famous for far more than its cherry trees, including 88 stations based on scenes from Japanese poetry, several scenic bridges and tea houses, and two hills representing the male and female deities which gave birth to Japan.
There are several other cherry trees in the park, including another that’s taller than 15m at the opposite end of the park from the shidarezakura, near the site of Tsutsuji-chaya (tea house). By the time we’d reached this point, Nana and I were well and truly chilled and decided to have something hot to drink while we waited another hour for dusk to fall and the illumination to begin. We escaped the lure of the famous tea house and opted for warm sake and then electric kombucha and ryokucha at a simple pavilion.
As we sipped our hot drinks and nibbled on simple snacks, the approaching twilight brought more and more clients to the pavilion. We noted visitors of varying nationalities and tongues, all of whom were welcomed by the friendly staff even when they had to order via miming. Nana had just observed that no one was ordering draft beer on account of the cold weather when one younger Japanese man ordered and received a large chilled mug of frothy. Meanwhile, looking out the side of the pavilion to the benches under the open skies, I saw a young girl eating a matcha ice cream. Brrr!
At the stroke of six we decided we’d waited long enough. The lights were on and the crowds were growing thicker. Warmed by our drinks, we hurried back to the shidarezakura and found it transformed by the illumination. After getting a few snaps here we returned to the other giant on the far side of the park and found it bathed in light alternating from white to pink and then violet.
Rikugien is well worth the visit for the illumination in the spring or the maple colors in the fall, but be prepared for large crowds and a long wait to get in during these popular seasons.
We visited Nakameguro on a weekday afternoon, hoping to avoid the crowds. Unfortunately, it seems at least 6 million other people had the same idea, and we were trapped in the midst of a jostling, multilingual crowd from the moment we got off the train at Nakameguro Station until we’d finished the visit and were pushing back onto another train to leave.
It was still early in the season, and the blossoms were only about half full. Still, in places the blossoms were packed so tightly it was like walking through a pale pink cloud. The only thing missing, as Nana voiced repeatedly, was blue skies.
Japan’s renowned cherry blossoms emerge, somewhat unpredictably, in late March through early April and are gone almost as soon as they reach their peak blooming. As such, they are a well-worn metaphor for the fleetingness of beauty and life.
At the southern tip of the Izu peninsula, however, the town of Kawazu is famous for a kind of cherry tree (one of more than 600 varieties worldwide) which is at once more intensely pink and longer lasting than the famed somei yoshino, and emerges much earlier. Typically, Kawazuzakura begin blossoming in early February and remain in bloom for the better part of a month, lining banks the eponymous Kawazu river with twin streams of pink.
This year Nana and I found ourselves in Izu at the right time, and we made the jaunt on a day that was forecast to be overcast and rainy. Much to our delight, the rain held off and the sun even emerged from the clouds during our visit.
Naturally, the Kawazuzakura Festival attracts large crowds, particularly on a weekend, and parking can be hard to come by. Some enterprising locals let out their spaces at ¥700, and some hardy souls simply park along whatever roadside doesn’t specifically forbid it. We chanced upon the happy solution of parking free at the nearby Kawazu Bagatelle Park (although we had to wait several minutes for a spot) and taking the (also free) shuttle bus down to the river.
A series of seven waterfalls along the Kawazu river cascades down a mountainside just a short drive north from Kawazu in Izu. Although it requires hiking more than 1km and some vigorous climbing to see them all, the natural beauty of the site is well worth the effort. Nana and I arrived in the mid-morning of a sunny and warm winter day, and started the series from the middle (as that’s where the route from the parking lot placed us).
In the riverbed en route to the falls lie two large stones surmounted by a circle of rope and other semi-religious accouterments. Visitors are invited to purchase three small pebbles from baskets at the edge of the walk for a nominal ¥100. After making a wish while holding the pebbles in their folded hands, the visitors throw the pebbles at the wishing stones. If a pebble lands atop one of the stones and remains, the wish is granted. However, the supplicant is admonished to return within the year to give thanks for the successful wish!
Just upstream of the wishing rocks, Shokeidaru fills a large pool next to a pair of statues illustrating a scene from Izu no Odoriko, a 1926 short story by Nobel prize-winner Kawabata Yasunari set in Izu. It’s one of the more impressive falls in the series (as well as being one of the easiest to access) with a 10m drop.
Next upstream from Shokeidaru is Hebidaru, the Snake Falls, so named for the scale-like appearance of the surrounding rock.
Continuing upstream after a swaying suspension bridge or two is Ebidaru, which is said to resemble a shrimp’s tail. The best view is via another swaying suspension bridge reached after scrambling over a rather narrow stone path branching off from the main trail. Your humble narrator has no inkling to what extent the rhyming of “hebi” and “ebi” played in the imagination of those who named the falls (but if they’re anything like a number of Japanese he’s met, it can’t have been far from their minds).
From the bridge the visitor has the choice of advancing over the next rocky ridge or retreating back to the main path. Either route will bring them to the next sight, the 22m Kamadaru.
Kamadaru, the Iron Kettle, marks the upstream end of the series with its 22m drop. The impressive falls was once feared as the entrance to Hell. Now, visitors are invited to shout from the depth of their soul towards the falls.
Returning whence we began, downstream of the wishing rocks is the unprepossessing Kanidaru with a 2m drop. While the name is suggestive of a crab, it’s written phonetically so no certainty can be given to this interpretation (and the official website’s description doesn’t cast any light on the question).
It would be in keeping, though, with the seafood metaphor suggested by Ebidaru …
Passing downstream brings us back to the main road, with two more falls lying on the other side, and to an unexpected meeting.
The river continues to descend at this point and so must we, clambering down rough-hewn steps to find the next falls: Deaidaru, at the meeting of two streams, the first of which has fed all the falls we’ve seen to this point.
Deaidaru actually encompasses several distinct drops, and it’s difficult to say which particular one merits the name. It seems that the separate streams both sport a few moderate drops before they join in a pool.
We have to climb back up to the road and walk past the parking lot and cafés to reach the final, and largest, waterfall in the series: Odaru. The path to Odaru is flanked by a private spa, and the route may be closed on days the spa is in use. At the foot of the falls is a party pavilion and three separate but very close and public pools, leaving Nana and me to speculate whether the customers of this particular spa wore bathing suits or else were a particularly fun-loving bunch.
Joren Falls lies at the upper reaches of the Kano River in central Izu and features a drop of 25m. According to legend, the falls is home to Jorogumo, a spider that transforms into a seductive woman. Several legends surround the Jorogumo, usually featuring a woodsman whose axe head has fallen into the pool beneath the falls. When the Jorogumo returns his axe head, the woodsman is captivated (and in some legends, captured).
The region is famous for its wasabi, and booths at the park entrance and near the falls feature fresh wasabi and goods made from wasabi — including wasabi ice cream. Wasabi is cultivated in the pool below Joren Falls.
Dougashima’s rocky coastline was formed over the millennia by a combination of volcanic action and wind and water erosion, resulting in a scenic juxtaposition of stratified cliffs and islands with forbiddingly vertical faces. Among the attractions are the Sanshiro islands (sharing their name with a famous novel by Japanese master Soseki) and the Skylight Cave, found within walking distance of each other amidst the resort spas in this sleepy village near Nishiizu.
Nana and I decided to take advantage of a work holiday to visit and celebrate an anniversary of sorts, and at the same time to burn up some credit from a hotel booking site I’ll never use again. (The hotel was great; the booking site service less so.) My recent acquisition of a Japanese driving license has opened up new vacation options for us: we decide to rent a car and spend a couple of days puttering around Izu and see a variety of sights that would be too difficult to manage by public transportation.
En route to the hotel we chanced up Koibito Misaki, the Lovers Cape. Tradition has it that those who ring the bell three times will summon love. The cape also boasts a view of Mt. Fuji across the Suruga Bay, but skies were not favorable during our visit.
The choice of hotel turned out to be inspired: our room had a direct view of the Sanshiro islands, which are [L-R] Zojima (Elephant Island), Nakanoshima (Center Island) and Takashima (Tall Island). The hotel staff proudly boasted of the view and quickly informed us of the tombolo land bridge to the islands that emerges at low tide. The hotel keeps a schedule of low tide times and height of the exposed tombolo on a flyer in the elevator.
Nana and I quickly resolved to take the boat tour of the coastline and to cross the tombolo when it emerged from the waves. Unfortunately, we’d have to wait for the following afternoon for the tombolo. And when we checked on the boat, it was the same story: at the moment the tide was too high, but it would be a different story if we came back on the morrow.
Undaunted, we returned to the hotel for a rest, a private bath (also featuring a view of the Sanshiro islands, but inferior to the view from our room) and a delicious kaiseki dinner in a quiet booth.
After a good night’s sleep and a traditional breakfast of broiled fish, rice and miso soup, we set out again for the boat landing. Yes, the boats were running and the skies were clearing at the same time. We quickly paid our fare and secured a couple of seats on the small boat that was already filling up with a busload of tourists.
The boat eased away from the mooring and took us at a sedate pace around the rocky cliffs and islands while a recording told us of the geological formations we were viewing. We got a view of the Sanshiro islands from the opposite side, with our hotel in the background. And then for the finale the boat took us inside one of the many caves in the side of the cliff rising next to the hotels, where we passed under the opening which gives this feature its name: Tensodo, or Skylight Cave.
Following the boat ride, we spent the rest of the morning on sights in the central ridge of the Izu peninsula. But we kept our eye on the time and returned in the early afternoon to cross the tombolo to the Sanshiro islands. Or so we thought — we hadn’t counted on the tombolo being composed entirely of grapefruit-sized stones, loosely tossed together by the waves, and many covered with slippery moss and seaweed. It was very treacherous footing, and we gave up after venturing only partway across the bridge.
Others had come better prepared for the outing, in sneakers, hiking shoes and even waders. We saw several people turning over stones and gathering things with buckets, and stopped to ask one woman what she was collecting. “Kai,” she replied, giving a generic term for shellfish. She said that she uses them in miso soup.
I’m sure we’ll be back to Dougashima in the future. Perhaps next time we’ll follow the coast around the peninsula rather than driving over (and around and around) the mountains that form its backbone.
The assistant at the office is my canary in the coal mine for the start of kafun, the hay fever season. He forfeits his contact lenses for glasses several weeks before things really tick upwards on the pollen count, and then starts popping pills. He’s been doing this for several days now.
Today another colleague mentioned he was suffering, and I sent him directions to my favorite allergist. Not too far from the office, good office hours for working people, and an excellent command of English.
And while I was observing the assistant and assisting the colleague, I was insisting that I was fine — that I wasn’t suffering at all. In fact, I’ve been doing a lot better these past few years, and sometimes don’t even bother with medication.
Then I left the office and went to meet a client for his English lesson, and he mentioned it also. It’s hay fever season, and he’s feeling it. I insisted I wasn’t affected in the least.
On the way home, I sneezed once or twice. Not really bad, but a couple of sneezes for seemingly no reason. And I was feeling itchy. I’ve been putting cream on my legs and now my scalp was starting to itch as well.
That’s it, I thought. Tomorrow, Nana and I are off to Izu for a couple of days of rest and relaxation, and I’m driving a minimum of three hours to get there. Once there, I don’t know what kind of access we’ll have to either allergists or drug stores. (I’m sure they’ll have both, but I don’t know if the allergists will prescribe what I’m used to taking or if the pharmacies will have it on hand.) Since the medication I usually take is available over the counter, I figured I could pick it up tomorrow morning on the way to the car rental pick-up. I’d heard Nana mention a 10 a.m. pick-up, and I was sure I could talk her into being just 15 minutes late for that so we could stop at the local drug store at 10 and get my meds.
On the bus home, I got off at the usual stop and realized I was right by the drug store. I shook my head at how long it had taken me to come to that realization. I found the medicine in under a minute, and spent another two minutes picking out eyedrops that were specifically formulated for hay fever. I spent a bit longer waiting in line at the register, and then the clerk informed me a generic was available for the hay fever medication I’d selected. He had a small basket of the generic right there at the register, which shows how widespread this hay fever thing is. (I decided to stick with my name-brand stuff. A few pence more and I get something I’m confident will work. Call it the placebo effect.)
I got home and had dinner with Nana and then took a pill. It was just a few minutes later that Nana mentioned we’re getting up early tomorrow, and we’re picking up the rental car at 8 …