Thursday, October 23, 2008

Fall in Japan


For a southern Californian, fall just means that the ocean water gets too cold to surf without a wetsuit, and shorts are replaced with sweatpants after the sun goes down. So imagine my delight when I explored Japan in October, where everything, everywhere, was all about the season. Real trees changing real colors! And real festivals celebrating a real change of season, in a part of the world where fall simply won't go unnoticed. From Nikko and Kurashiki, here is my montage to autumn in Japan.












Saturday, October 18, 2008

Tea & Geishas




I love my job. No really, I love my jobs! When I’m not behind the camera, I am in front of some pretty fantastic people. And I make a living traveling the world with them. And doing it in grand style. And staying in the best hotels. And dining out in the very best restaurants. And meeting the local people. And having cultural encounters that only a lucky few ever experience in their travels. Yep, you guessed it, I’m a Travcoa Travel Director.

In Japan, that means a lot of things. I get to stay at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. I get to ride the First Class Bullet Trains. And I get invited into a Japanese home for a traditional Tea Ceremony.






And what of Geishas, you ask? While others pound the pavements of Kyoto frantically hoping to catch a glimpse of the elusive Geishas, I managed to place myself and my travel companions in the exclusive company of not one, but three Geishas for an entire evening.



They served, we ate.




They danced, we applauded.








They entertained us in traditional drinking games, and we obliged.

video

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Big in Japan

After 24 hours in Tokyo with camera in hand and no set agenda, I quickly found a subject for my first blog from Japan. It helped having the 80’s tune playing in my head, but really, there’s something behind it. To be big in Japan, you’ve got to have a following of “fan crowds”.

In the course of one afternoon and evening in the Ginza district, I stumbled across a few such living organisms. It wasn’t until my third or fourth one that I found someone who spoke english and described the entity as a “fan crowd”. You might imagine some unruly mob pushing and shoving and clammering a rock star for autographs. Forget it. Instead, imagine if you will a shoal of fish swimming together in synchronicity, each individual part of a mass which moves as one in perfect formation. Choreographed order. Much like the line to get on the escalators in the department store.

Then the line to get into the London-based H&M fashion store - longer than any queue I’ve ever seen at Disneyland in peak summer, and more orderly than a military parade.

Then, in spots along the Ginza, there were just these crowds. Everyone standing perfectly spaced from one another, no one blocking anyone else’s view, and all watching intently toward a building. The building’s first floor was a bookstore, and it seemed that a writer was making an appearance, though no one was holding any books, just cellphones and cameras. So I wasn’t sure. Many were gazing up at the second floor, signs of which seemed to indicate the opening of a health spa. I tried to ask several people in the crowd, but no one spoke or understood english.

It wasn’t until the evening when I stepped out from the Imperial Hotel to see a huge crowd formed along the outside of a building, continuing down the street, and around a corner, all standing as if waiting for a parade to begin.

When I saw that the building housed a theater, I figured it was a premier. I found a security guard who spoke english and I asked what everyone was doing. He answered “That is theater, show end 7:30, and this is fan crowd”. So I asked who the “fan crowd” was waiting to see, the actors? Yes, he replied. Anyone famous, I asked? “Yes, a little” he replied. His answer indicated it would be no one I would recognize, so I took my pictures of the orderly fans.

Somebody I didn’t recognize went by, and as if in a stadium wave, the crowd bowed their heads as he passed. No hollering, no following, just a quiet bow of respect to the actor celebrity, followed by cameras and cellphones held high to get a picture. Incredible order.

Speaking of bows, it’s an odd feeling when you get in an elevator and watch a little gloved woman bow to you as the doors close. Or when you board a bus at the airport and the guy who sold you a ticket and loaded your bag bows from the curb as the bus pulls away. It wasn't long before I felt that perhaps I might be considered “big in Japan” too.

So what else is big in Japan? Well, so many things to name here, but there are two which I chose to feature in this article.

First, the FOOD. A short walk anywhere and one can't help but pass a presentation of a restaurant menu with pictures rather than words...

...or menu items themselves displayed on the sidewalk outside the door of the restaurant.

I always try to get to a local supermarket on my first day anywhere – I find that markets reveal so much about the culture of a place and provide rapid immersion into interaction with the locals. So in Tokyo, with the fish market closed and over, I decided to explore the basement levels of two major Japanese Department stores. That’s where you find the food halls. For the Japanese, food presentation is as important as quality and taste, and everything looked so incredibly good! I had a kiwi smoothie, melt-in-your mouth gingered eggplant, a warm bread roll filled with lentils – but oh, the sweetest lentils, and a special treat of cherry tofu pudding. That’s right, tofu, which I eat all the time, but for anyone who might have an aversion to it, well, you haven’t had this pudding. Anyway, here are a few pictures from the food halls where presentation is everything, and everything is presented in seasonal theme: AUTUMN.








Last night I had an incredible dinner too. It was the kind of place that only seated 15 or so around a bar. The bar is covered in fresh raw food, fresh vegetables, fresh fish, etc. There is no menu. You simply point to the items you want and the two chefs behind the bar prepare the entire meal as you watch. It’s fantastic.

Sake is served cold and in a small wooden box. It is poured to overflowing, which is a good thing, because you’ll want to be well relaxed and happy when you get the check....another “big” in Japan. Don’t even ask, but entirely worth it.

The second most notable thing(s) big in Japan are DOGS. Not just dogs on leashes, but dogs in arms, dogs on laps, dogs as fashion accessories. And it doesn’t stop there. The dogs themselves are fashionably dressed.

And the owners on the street everywhere are quite proud to display their dogs. When I held my camera asking permission to take a photo, I was often made to wait while the owner primped over her dog, fluffed its hair, positioned it just right and was probably even telling it to smile in Japanese. Most dogs had far too much attitude to smile. I can’t imagine why…

But hang on guys, it's not just the women who dress their dogs - in fact, I found as many, if not more, men who dressed their dogs or even sharing meals and bench seats with them. Small dogs. Lap dogs. Accessory dogs. Yep, you read that right. Men dressing their dogs in clothes, and sitting them in their laps to eat. What, still don't believe me?

Little dogs, BIG attitudes. (ok, another "big" in Japan)

Who can blame them? The dogs themselves have an entire floor of a department store dedicated just to them. Seriously. I would never have known until I stepped into an elevator and read “8th floor – Dog Salon and Fashions”, so of course I had to see for myself. I stepped out at the 8th floor onto a gorgeous open air roof garden, where dogs were frolicking with each other and hanging out with their owners. At one end was the Salon, and there was a line of people making appointments for their dogs for spa treatments (hair, nails, that sort of thing…and yes, some dogs even emerged with painted toe nails). Next door was the Dog Boutique, where one shops for miniature designer clothes and diamond studded collars and silk pillows, you know, just the basics. Here is a display in the shoe department, just to give you an idea:

At the other end of the roof garden was another building, where dogs who were weary of shopping could be dropped off and looked after with personalized care and attention while their owners shopped.

A Japanese doggy day care retreat - no kennels or cages, just lots of pillows, toys, brushes, gourmet food in the silver bowl...and of course, luxurious "big in Japan" beds for those too bored with everything else.