DON’T blink, that IS me under the parasol!: the Galloping Granny turned Geisha with my own rather bemused samurai (husband Brian) by my side on our recent visit to the Land of the Rising Sun.
While it takes years to acquire all the accomplishments needed to become a geisha – singing, dance, playing a musical instrument and, of course, the art of conversation – it still took about three hours hours for my ‘apprentice geisha’ make-up to be applied. The end result for me was fabulous. Unsurprisingly, several antique kimono accompanied me home.
Kyoto is the home of the geisha and her ‘apprentice’ maiko, but we made many other great stops in Japan. Here are some of my snapshot moments. . .
Don’t worry that creaking limbs will prevent fellow galloping grans and grandads from enjoying an authentic Japanese meal at a Tokyo Shabu-shabu restaurant while seated on the floor, on tatami mats, served by elegant young kimono-clad ladies.
Would aching joints would ever allow me to rise again? Fear not, it was all an illusion: the table was set (for Westerners, I presume) over an area where our feet could dangle, reclining against a back rest and, to all intents and purposes, ‘sitting on the floor’.
Shabu-shabu is amazing, a large pot of broth into which are dipped, before eating, all manner of things – tiny mushrooms, wagu beef, salad leaves – producing an intensely-flavoured soup which, at the end of the meal, we drank from small bowls.
Thus began a two week eating extravaganza. We tried everything, from soba and udon noodles to okonomyaki – a kind of Japanese pizza-pancake with various toppings – to upmarket sandwiches at £15 apiece and hot chestnuts from the brazier at £10 a bag. I’ll never complain about English prices again!
We became elderly backpackers, enjoying a week of ‘Japan Rail Travel’. A Japan Rail pass is a concession offered only to foreigners. A pass costs about £200 for 7 days and offers almost unlimited travel throughout Japan. There are a couple of lines that you can’t use but,generally speaking, travel is an open book.
We went from Tokyo to Hakone, taking in Odowara, moved on to Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima, briefly visited Yokohama and arrived back at Tokyo with a mountain of memories and a sack of souvenirs.
Hakone is a mountainous region and, of course, our hotel was up a hill; worth it, nonetheless, for the view. We used the local buses to travel around the area, crossed Lake Ashi, on a replica pirate ship and enjoyed a hot spring in our hotel: ‘onesies’ were not allowed —I leave the rest to your imagination!
About 10 minutes walk from our hotel was a museum dedicated to the author of ‘The Little Prince’. In the middle of Japan, a replica French village complete with bakery, café, chapel and shops. Explanation? Although written by a Frenchman, the book’s illustrator was Japanese.
There was a serious and moving side to our trip: Hiroshima, a town of solemnity and dignity, showcases the dramatic post-nuclear effect of the 1945 atom bomb, an important visit for me because of my 20-year involvement with Chernobyl charities.
The atom dome still stands, its concrete walls open to the air, symbolising the devastation., Amazingly, some buildings survived. I spoke briefly with a survivor, Miko, who showed me a book he had written containing pictures of Hiroshima before and after. Then paid a moving visit to the museum and read the roll call of the dead.
After paying our respects to victims of the recent past we took a futuristic ride on a bullet train — without which no visit would be complete — to Yokohama, home to the biggest Chinatown in Japan and an ‘all you can eat’ buffet’ which left us staggering into the rainy night vowing never to eat again.
Japan is amazing. The culture, the politeness, the way in which we people of a certain age) were helped, looked out for and treated with great respect.
The contrast between the traditional Shinto religion, with its beautiful shrines, and the ultra-modern high-rise buildings and department stores demonstrates how far Japan has moved in the last 70 years.
I’m already saving for my next visit.