Archive for April, 2013

Flying Kangaroo

I must confess to being disappointed by my latest Qantas adventure. The food on our flight to Tokyo really was barely edible. Even my daughter who, for some odd reason, normally likes airplane food had trouble getting through it. Fortunately the food on the flight back to Sydney was considerably better. Unfortunately pre-dinner drinks seem to have fallen by the wayside.

More concerning, however, was the small plastic bottle of water we were handed after our departure from Narita. It was a bottle of Volvic, imported from France. Considering both Australia and Japan produce perfectly drinkable tap water why Qantas is importing water from France is totally beyond me. My dismay was exacerbated by the fact that we received a bottle of home grown Mt Franklin on our domestic flight back to Melbourne. And for some reason recycling, via a bag for our plastic cups, was encouraged on domestic flights but not international ones.

To cap off a disappointing experience the baggage handlers managed to destroy the waist strap on my new rucksack and the entertainment console failed to do more than deliver a very jerky version of Skyfall. This forced me to actually try and sleep on the flight. If only planes had as much leg room as Japanese bullet trains.

Despite all this my next flying escapade will quite likely be with Qantas because, as Dustin Hoffman said in Rain Man, “Qantas never crashed”, and that has to be worth more than the bad food, large environmental footprint, lack of leg room, no entertainment and destructive baggage handlers, doesn’t it?

Dr. F. Bunny

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Turning Japanese II

I am not necessarily a fan of everything Japanese, although I did enjoy their concept of punctuality as a mark of respect. I was told that the Japanese consider the other person’s time as valuable as their own, so it is only natural that they would not want to waste it by turning up late. Considering the dearth of rubbish bins it was also impressive how much cleaner their cities were compared with Melbourne.

In some areas, however, they do tend to lag behind. The concept of eating is one such example. Why persist in using two thin pieces of wood to handle your food when much of the rest of the world has moved on to metal cutlery? Admittedly chopsticks are quite useful for picking up sashimi or sushi but try eating meat or the okonomiyaki omelettes with them. As I have a tendency to inhale my food they did have the beneficial effect of slowing my food consumption down to the speed of the other diners, which probably helped my digestion. Being wood, chopsticks are not reused resulting in 24 billion pairs being discarded by the Japanese each year. A lot of trees could be saved by using washable metal implements. Depending on your source, Japan is either the most heavily forested country in the world or it falls second behind Finland, with over 60% of its land still covered in trees. They are good at preserving these forests too, importing most of their chopsticks from China. I do suspect, however, that chopsticks may cause some Japanese as much frustration as us, as I saw a shop selling magic chopsticks. To my untrained eye these looked amazingly like forks.

Much has been written about Japanese toilets, and deservedly so. They are true masterpieces of engineering. Beside the actual toilet are a bewildering array of buttons that, when pressed, will deliver a jet or spray of water with uncanny accuracy at your bottom. It took a while to find the off button, as there are also dials to adjust the intensity and temperature of the water as well as one to heat the seat. Even more impressive, however, were some of the urinals, which had video screens above them and contained a small target to aim at. If your aim was successful the video screen came to life and an animated gentleman raced across the screen carrying a can. The more you peed the more the can filled up. I managed to fill two and a half cans. Not bad for a first attempt. While this may sound absurd the floor was not awash with the litres of stale urine I usually stand in at public urinals. Anything that improves men’s aims must be applauded.

The Japanese are, on the whole, extremely well dressed, sporting a wide assortment of new, clean, designer clothes. Unfortunately they don’t appear to get it quite right. Parisians are the other group of people I’ve seen who take great pride in their appearance. However, while the Parisians are also co-ordinated in what they wear, the Japanese appear to have thrown a completely random assortment of clothes together, some of which are downright weird. I saw quite a few girls wearing stockings with some sort of writing on them, either in French or English, running up and down their legs. And those legendary shirts sporting complete nonsense in English are not hard to spot either. It makes me wonder if the people who have Japanese or Chinese characters tattooed on their bodies really know what they mean. In an episode of the Big Bang Theory Sheldon asks Penny why she has the Chinese symbol for soup tattooed on her buttock. Outraged, she tells him it is the symbol for courage. Presumably the shirt people believe they are sporting similarly edgy, insightful or humorous (certainly humorous) messages.

It would also seem prudent to employ a native English speaker to check their sign translations. That way the sign at our sake tasting would not tell us to “Please take grass home.” I did also wonder why a blue platypus was chosen my Japan Rail to tell people not to smoke.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Turning Japanese

I have just returned from two fantastic weeks in the Land of the Rising Sun. This being my first trip I was struck by the country’s unique ability to embrace both the old and the new. The people were all incredibly friendly, polite, law abiding and helpful. Compared with Australia, Japanese society seemed very structured with a long list of social conventions that regulate people’s daily lives. While this may appear restrictive once I had deciphered the system I found knowing what was expected in various situations to be oddly relaxing. It was probably just my German background enjoying the predictability of it all. The old joke about why the German crossed the road (The little man is green now. It’s allowed) is equally applicable to the Japanese. People formed orderly queues on railway platforms to board the trains, the doors of which always lined up with the carriage numbers marked on the ground. The trains were insanely punctual and reliable. People did not eat in public. Shoes were removed before entering temples, restaurants, homes, castles and sumo rings, which is a very common sense way of not tracking dirt everywhere. If you do decide to visit Japan do not, under any circumstances, wear a pair of lace up hiking boots.

Given that the majority of Japanese claim no personal religion they have presumably decided on their social conventions all by themselves, producing a set of guidelines that work for them. Considering their extremely low crime rate, compared with many devoutly religious countries, it certainly seems to be working for them. Japan does, however, have two major religions and, interestingly, most people profess to follow both.

Shintoism is Japan’s own home grown religion. It has no major prophet and no all-consuming deity. In fact there are eight million deities or spirits as all animate and inanimate objects contain a kami or spiritual essence. It is not necessary to swear allegiance and forsake all others to be Shinto. Anyone who practices Shinto rituals is counted as belonging to the religion. The Japanese have also imported Buddhism and see no contradiction in following both this religion and Shintoism, picking the best bits from each. It is refreshing to see religion working for the people instead of the other way round. Most people celebrate birth events according to the Shinto way but use Buddhist rituals for funeral arrangements. According to what one Japanese person told me the Shinto afterlife is not as appealing as the Buddhist nirvana. There are no Shinto cemeteries. Cremation is a Buddhist ritual. I was told that Shintoists believe the spirit returns to the earth and bodies were either thrown in the river or left on a hillside, presumably for scavengers to dispose of. I can feel myself becoming more Shinto all the time.

As a member of one of the world’s fattest countries it struck me how few overweight Japanese there are. This should come as no surprise as the Japanese consume virtually no bread products and no chocolate. In fact almost none of the places we ate at featured a dessert menu. Dairy products were also all but absent from the diet, which is probably sensible too as we appear to be the only species that drinks the milk of another well into adulthood (apart from my wife’s border collie who used to zip into the milking shed of any farm she visited, in order to clean up the spilled milk). Foods are minimally processed with a strong emphasis on raw foods including fish. I did enjoy my sashimi but I will be worming myself as soon as I get the chance. We cooked many of our restaurant meals ourselves much to my son’s indignation who felt that, as we were having a night out, the least the restaurant staff could do was to cook it for us. We made our own sukiyaki, which featured melt in the mouth Hida beef, that I’m sure was not particularly healthy given the reason for the meat’s flavour and tenderness was its intense marbling. We also concocted our own chankonabe, a stew containing seafood, chicken, vegetables, rice and egg designed to bulk up the sumos, and our own okonomiyaki, a type of savoury pancake filled with whatever takes your fancy. It was also good to see the Japanese making the most of local produce consuming a wide variety of unrecognisable mountain vegetables, as they called them. I found the fern to be quite tasty but I don’t think I will miss the lotus root. Our diet does not seem to be nearly as varied as theirs. All of this no doubt contributes to the fact that the Japanese now have the highest life expectancy in the world.

And the best part? Tips are neither given nor expected. Politeness and good service are an expected part of the culture.

Dr. F. Bunny

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