Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Japan Trip - Day 11

This morning I went to get breakfast from the nearby konbini and I got stuck at a pedestrian crossing because of my colourblindness. Everyone says it's one of the smallest disabilities and it doesn't really affect your life unless you're a pilot or a part of a bomb defusal squad, but I want to point out that it can affect you in very real and dilapidating ways. So I was standing there at the crossing, and there are cars going by, it being rush hour and all, and I can't cross the road because the signal is still red. So I'm waiting there for about five minutes and the lights haven't changed, so I look around for the button to push (push until shiok) and I notice a button, but I can't tell if it's red or green and the label doesn't help because it's in Japanese, and there are no other visual instructions or anything, except Braille. I'm thinking, this is probably the button to press to change the lights, but I can't tell for sure and I don't know what Japan crossings are like, and if it was actually red I might be pressing some, I don't know, emergency stop system, or something. So I wait for another five minutes and it soon becomes apparent that these are the traffic lights which won't change until someone presses the button. So I pressed it, and in a few seconds the amber lights come on and I'm crossing the road to my breakfast. I was stuck at a traffic junction for an indecent amount of time because of my deuteranopia.

Curse you colour-coded forms of communication!
Our explorations for that day took us to the samurai district where the homes of the old foot soldiers stood. It would probably have been a more informative excursion if we had someone who could read Japanese. The only signs that we could read were the ones pointing out the different rooms in the traditional household. They weren't very big, a couple of small rooms with a second storey storeroom, but the gardens were about half the size of the house. There was one big complex with a very ornate garden, and had some sakura left to make the whole scene really beautiful.

Join the army, get a tree.
We visited Kanazawa Castle and just our luck, there was a free tour guide there and she spoke English, so we got explanations about the compound, which was pretty bare except for a few buildings here and there, mostly gardens and the large wall which surrounded the complex. She brought us to the nearby Kenroku-en, or "Six Attributes Garden", which was named for being designed according to three pairs of opposing landscaping attributes, like "water" and "open spaces" and some other things which I can't remember. It was quite a warm day, and there were a few flowers in bloom. The guide also introduced us to a variety of sakura native to the Kanazawa region, which she said only bloomed for a short time each year, and that we were lucky to see it while we were there.

Lucky flowers!

We visited a nearby shrine, and it had a small pond, with tiny fish fry and a couple of pond skaters. I bought a fortune there for just 20 yen. I don't understand this form of fortune-telling; the fortunes are all in a plate or box next to the sign for donations (or prices), and sometimes they're even numbered, so if you know #42 was the one with excellent luck all year you'd pick that one, right? Even if they weren't numbered, it's not very mysterious to just pick a lottery of fortunes - and it's a bit ironic too.

There's a story behind the lantern but I can't remember what it is.
Lunch was at a place called Matsumoto, this restaurant with a huge garden and a stone arch over the entryway. It looked pretty formal, and we were a bunch of young tourists in our jeans and sweaters, and the waitress was in a kimono and the only other patrons we could see was a businessman at the counter and a couple of office workers. We got shunted to the back, as per Bryan's theory of the Japanese Restaurant's Policy towards Foreigners, and we only chose food from the menu that we could read, or if the kanji was pretty obvious, like "meat". I had a good tempura udon, while XM and Bryan had these huge multi-course meals.

There's no al fresco dining though.
A walk was taken through the historic geisha district. It was small and narrow with many tiny souvenir shops, and there was a very strong sense of wooden architecture around the whole area. There was a very attractive aroma coming from one of the pastry shops, which drew my nose towards it, but my pocket protested once it saw the prices. At that point, we still needed to save some money for Tokyo.

There's a minotaur down the right-hand path.
Our wanderings brought us past this gold leaf shop, where they manufactured gold leaf by pounding gold until it got flatter and flatter and it was only a few microns thick. I never knew that's how it's made; I always thought they squeeze it through hot rollers or something. Instead they have this large pounding machine, which basically just pounds a few times per second, and they put the squares of gold leaf under it and pound it and then they cut it and pound it again.

You too can make your own gold leaf, for only 24 easy payments of $49.95!
There were samples of the thinnest... samples there, and it was almost translucent. There was also a gold-plated replica of one of the rooms of the Imperial Palace, I think it was, and everything in it, from the walls to the floor and even the teacups, were all golden. There was also a golden replica of a five storey pagoda.

It's actually a pretty accurate logarithmic scale in descending order.
It takes two hundred thousand dollars to live in this room... for twelve seconds.
We were all a bit awkward in the shop, because the sales assistants treated us like potential customers all the way, which was not all bad but they expected us to be rich paying customers, so it was the first-class service, the type where they stand by you while you watch the video of how gold leaf is made, and serve you green tea cake with a gold leaf finish, and tea with a sprinkle of gold flakes in. It was probably the most expensive-looking meal I had the entire trip. I say "expensive-looking" but it was probably only worth a few cents, since gold is sold by weight, and a few hundred molecules of it probably isn't worth much. But since we didn't want to eat their gold cake and drink their gold tea and just leave, we made some small gold plated purchases. I bought a small sticker for about 300 yen. There was also a lady proffering us tiny, millimetre-square samples of gold leaf, and she asked us to rub it into the palm of our hands, and we did so, and they dissolved. Completely. No smell too. That's how little gold there actually was. I probably still have a few atoms stuck to my skin now.

Mmm... money...

Would you buy a gold facial mask?

Or gold-plated golf balls?
We arrived back at the hostel early, and everyone else wanted to hang around because they were tired. The staff announced that they were having a gyoza party that night, and requested our help to make the 300 dumplings. XM went to help buy stuff from a nearby supermarket; I however, went for a walk, past the nearby konbini with the horrible button, down towards the post office which didn't look very tourist-friendly, and down into the residential area, just looking at people and houses and birds and the electrical system and bicycles and cars and the whole feel of a Japanese neighbourhood. I made a discovery as I passed the wide waterways: a large wheel and chain system, with hooks on a conveyor belt, continuously clearing away the leaves and debris from the grating.

When I got back at around 6 pm XM told me that the stuffing was still being prepared, so we hung around outside the guest house, chatting and watching the flowing water and finding out that the barrier gate is not locked.

Inside the small cramped living/dining room, waiting for us, was a large bowl of strong-smelling raw meat and vegetable mix, the stuffing of the gyoza which would inevitably be stuffing our stomachs. Yuu-san taught us how to fold a small lump of raw stuffing into the small circle of dough, and it was obvious from the beginning that I had no natural talent whatsoever. It was fun, though, chatting as the repetive task become third nature, like second nature except not so. Midway through this extravaganza, we were introduced to the guest who would be sleeping in that room that night, because of space issues. His name was Vinh, he said he was Cantonese but from Canada, and he was studying in Japan for a while before returning to Canada. I had a feeling he had Vietnamese blood though, because his name didn't sound very ethnic Chinese.

I made that plate!

Soon all the hundreds of gyoza were wrapped up in their individual packages, and sent to the kitchen for Yuu-san to fry. The sizzling smell of adequately-burnt dumpings was intoxicating. The dining tables were set up, and soon we were sitting down to dinner with Vinh, a Japanese man called Sou-san, a lady from Thailand on a short holiday before her conference called Patti, and the two staff, with promise of Masaki-owner-san joining us later.

It was mostly talking about our countries again, how everyone is amazed by Xi Min's level of Japanese, and Sou-san gave us an introduction to the intricacies of the Japanese language, about how there are four variations for "cool down" and a different phrase if the door was opened by a person or by itself. We pointed out how most kanji was similar to Chinese characters, and there was mention of JX's Japanese name as well. Vinh said he had long ago compiled a catalogue of the different meanings of kanji in both Chinese and Japanese. Eventually Yuu-san, who I was sitting next to, was asking me to translate stuff for her, or at least correct her broken English, for phrases that she would need to use around work.

From left: Yuu-san, Sou-san, Vinh, and Patti. Picture courtesy of Vinh.

I don't normally like gyoza, but these ones were delicious, and with the saucy mix of vinegar and soy sauce made it excellent. I think the talk seasoned it as well.

Our room, complete with futons and strewn baggage.
 *All pictures in this post courtesy of Bryan.

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