On our last night in Aso, I made soup from the left over veg we had in the fridge. I tried adding egg to the soup Japanese style, but this had the unfortunate effect of making it resemble a bowlful of vomit. Thankfully it tasted marginally better.
The next morning we went to the local onsen. Ah…. Lovely. In both the male and female sections there were the usual showering areas, then an indoor hot spring pool, a sauna, a cold pool and an outdoor hot spring pool. It started to gently snow, which made the outdoor pool experience all the more invigorating! I think there’s a lot to be said for communal bathing. At first it is a bit daunting and you feel quite self-conscious. However, once you know the basic rules and where everything is, you can start to relax and you realise no one really cares about what you look like, as long as you have washed yourself properly. There is no such thing as ‘normal’, there is no ideal. People come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and you’re just one part of that beautiful collage. So let’s all get naked and rejoice in our own skin! Ha ha! I do wonder if there was a culture like this in the UK if we would have a healthier attitude to body image. Would it lessen the anxiety of the teenage years or would it magnify it? Discuss.
(We were talking about English GCSE this morning, so I have come over all teachery. However, I really would be interested to know your opinions!)
Emerging sparkling from the onsen, we got ourselves contentedly lost in the back streets of Aso, the refreshing icy wind stinging our faces and numbing our fingers. The mountains were dusted with snow, and the highest peaks were still huddled in cloud, but there were patches of blue sky emerging and we could clearly see the walls of the caldera stretching around us. We found a wonderful little restaurant down a secluded lane made of dark wood, insulated with a mud-based plaster. Set about the room were low tables, each with a central fire pit and cushions to sit on. We sat ourselves down and the waiter came over with a bucket of red hot coals, carefully adding them one by one to the pit. We ordered our meal and cooked it in a leisurely manner over the grill, thankful for the opportunity to warm our hands at the same time.
Fuelled for the next stage of our journey, we collected our rucksacks and made our way to the train station. We had seen a lot of pictures of a black cartoon bear, with a white muzzle and rosy red cheeks whilst in the Kumamoto region. Every shop we went to in Aso seemed to stock packs of biscuits, bags of sweets and trinkets with him on. Luke asked the lady at the tourist information centre and she told us he is called ‘Kumamon’, which means ‘Mr Bear’, and he is the mascot of Kumamoto prefecture. She then gave us a poster of a map showing the cartoon mascots of all the Japanese prefectures. Cute culture again! Kumamon was created in 2010 to try and encourage tourism in the region. He was so popular, that he beat all the other mascots in a 2011 competition to find the nation’s favourite mascot. He is truly a force to be reckoned with, and is thought to have made over ¥120 billion in his first two years of heading up the Kumamoto tourism campaign. It just goes to show the power of a clever marketing strategy. We even saw a black car with a Kumamon face on it – it looked pretty good!
On the train, we got talking to a South Korean man. He was mostly retired, but was on a short trip for a small export business he runs. He currently lives in Australia, but has also lived in New Zealand. We talked about differences between oriental and western cultures and he told us how he and his wife spend a lot of time with their grandchildren, so that they can learn the Korean language and culture and really feel it is part of their background. Luke gave him our poster of the Japanese mascots as a souvenir for them.
Things were still rocking at the Christmas market as we made our way to our bargainous hotel for the night. We were pretty tired, so we just snuck take away food into our room and watched cartoons!
We had a Japanese buffet breakfast at the hotel the next morning, a cold mixture of fried vegetables, noodles, rice and plenty of fruit, before catching the subway and heading for Robosquare, a kind of small robot museum. Some robots were designed to stimulate the elderly and reduce feelings of loneliness, by conducting short conversations and one even sang traditional Japanese songs. This one looked like a cute alien baby and would light up with an LED smile when it was happy. There was also a Hello Kitty robot, but she didn’t understand my Japanese, so our conversation was limited. To be honest, I don’t think she’s a particularly great conversationalist anyway. There was a robot made for marketing (apparently if you have a robot handing out leaflets, people are more likely to take them), robot vacuum cleaners and a search and rescue robot that can crawl through spaces humans can’t access looking for earthquake victims. It was interesting, but much of it seemed a bit dated and not as cutting edge as we had expected. This might have been because the newest looking robots were simply on display with text explaining their functions; those that you could interact with used technology we were already familiar with. At the end of our visit, we were treated to a song and dance act by four robot dogs, two of which had Christmas antlers attached. They played ‘Last Christmas’ by George Michael and boogied in unison, wiggling their bottoms, waving their legs and wagging their tails. It was pretty funny; I found the choice of song quite amusing! They followed it up with an encore of another Christmas song, but I don’t recall which it was.
After slurping some more noodles and eating more cake, we both got a little overexcited in a stationery shop – so much lovely coloured paper! Beautiful pens with fine tips perfect for sketching! A magnificent choice of brush pens! We have only found brush pens in one shop in England – Broad Canvas in Oxford, and they only stock one variety, made in Japan. Since being in China and Japan, we have seen lots of these pens, as they are perfect for doing Calligraphy. However, they are also really nice to draw with. Essentially, they are like a fountain pen, but instead of a nib, they have a brush. You can draw very thin lines or very fat lines without having to constantly dip your brush in ink. We spent our last night in Japan happily experimenting with our new materials!
There are a couple of other things I have neglected to mention so far about our impressions of Japan. One of the more obvious things is the frequency with which you see people wearing face masks. In China, this seemed like a sensible precaution, as the cities were so full of smog. Indeed we wore masks ourselves from time to time. In Japan, the reason was not so clear. The city air seemed quite clean, so it was unlikely to be because of pollution. Alex, with whom we had couchsurfed at the beginning of our stay in Japan, had told us people wore masks to prevent them catching diseases and also to prevent them spreading germs to others if they had a cold. Personally, I can’t see the attraction in wearing a mask when you have a streaming cold. You are imprisoning yourself with your own snot! That is true altruism for you. If you’re struggling to breathe anyway, why make it worse for yourself? As for whether mask wearing significantly lowers the risk of catching airborne disease from others, I would have to do some internet research to find out (and as I write this, I don’t have access for a few days!). Regardless, the use of masks is commonplace and cross-generational, and every convenience store has a small rack of mask brands to choose from, so the marketing is clearly working well.
Another noticeable difference is in the general orderliness. The Japanese can outdo the English at queuing; sometimes they form voluntary queues where it seems this will improve efficiency and they always seem to wait for the green man before crossing the road, even when there are no cars coming.
We have really enjoyed our weeks in Japan. It has been the most expensive country to travel in so far, but we are both really glad we decided to go for it. We have found the Japanese people extremely friendly and helpful; sometimes a bit reserved, but with a rather silly sense of humour which we could relate to quite easily. And of course, we will miss the toilets.