Navel Gazer

Published: Saturday November 29, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday November 29, 2014 MYT 8:22:38 AM

Japan for the uninitiated

Our columnist’s ‘Visit Japan 101’ is perfect for those who intend to visit the Land of the Rising Sun.

AS much as I love my sashimi and Ken Watanabe, I’ve never understood the craze over all things Japanese. When a chance came to visit the Land of the Rising Sun last year, I expected little more than a pleasant diversion from routine, plus boatloads of sushi-eating sprees.

The first clue that I was in for several surprises came when I went to answer nature’s call in the JR Express train to Kyoto, and almost walked away from the toilet. The darn thing had more buttons and dials than the Star-Lord’s spaceship! When I finally plucked up the nerve to press one, I shrieked in fright as growl-like sounds emanated from the toilet. Turns out the button was for adjusting the flushing volume.

To call my maiden trip to Japan educational would be an understatement. Take dining, for example. I thoroughly enjoyed my kaiseki meal, part fine dining, part theatre dining experience – I sat at a tiny counter and watched a battalion of chefs preparing my dinner from scratch.

But I also learned that you don’t have to spend a bomb to enjoy eating in Japan, or limit yourself to ¥320 Mos burgers. One of my best meals was a stick of yakitori (meat cubes on a skewer), sauced and grilled right in front of me, outside a temple in Gion.

One overlooked aspect of Japan is that the country is beautiful any time of the year. Personally, a casual walk through town can be just as rewarding as visiting tourist spots, especially during autumn when the leaves are in vivid colours. To people who say, “Oh, but you should have gone in spring to see cherry blossoms!”, I just show them the photo of a random silver building fronted by a row of reddening trees in Kyoto city centre.

The streets of Gion are dotted with antiquated wooden buildings and cosy restaurants.
The streets of Gion are dotted with antiquated wooden buildings and cosy restaurants.

Or the one of the gorgeous plum tree that I took at Kitano Shrine. A photo I almost never took because, when I was there, the only other human around was a devilishly handsome guy in a long trenchcoat, who was staring at the same tree and wearing the severe expression of a samurai about to go to war. I remember walking up to him gingerly, expecting to be scolded for disturbing his serenity. Not only did he oblige, he took a series of photos in different angles to make sure I got the best one.

Welcome to the land of painstaking perfectionism, meticulous detail, and hospitality so warm you’d be inspired to write haikus.

Mind you, Japanese people can look unfriendly. People in train stations, in particular, seem downcast, mostly because their nose is buried in a book. Don’t let that fool you into mistaking them for cold, mechanical people, though. I could write a book on all the random acts of kindness that I encountered in Japan, but probably nothing beats the epic-ness of what happened during visit No.2, when I went to Nagoya with my parents.

Before that, a question: What’s the worst thing that could happen to a freelance writer who stores her contact information, appointment schedule and article drafts in her smartphone?

That’s right: Dropping it in a foreign country.

I dropped it some time after dinner and window-shopping at the shops in the nearby interchange station, and only discovered the loss when we got back to the hotel. By then, all the shops were closed. There was nothing I could do except bar my phone and inform my clients and regular contacts.

One of them, a regular visitor to Japan, advised me to try the lost and found department. The first thing I did the next morning was to visit the lost and found department in the interchange station, but no luck. What was I thinking? It happened in the highest traffic area in the entire city, for crying out loud.

Horror hit me as I realised I still had another three days of pretending that everything was a-OK to my mother, who would surely give me an earful for being a “big-headed prawn” (absent-minded and careless). To my surprise, I managed to get by and, heck, even enjoy myself, the next couple of hours. We went to a local market where the old folks ooh-ed and aah-ed over juicy and colourful autumn fruits: Persimmons as big as melons, radishes almost as big as baseball bats.

By nightfall, I had almost forgotten about my phone, until we passed by the lost and found department once again on the way back to the hotel.Part of me balked at the idea. No! You’re just setting yourself up for disappointment! But I had to know once and for all.

Bracing myself for the worst, I went in, looked at the officer squarely in the eye and asked if he’d seen my five-inch Korean-brand smartphone.

“…with a black casing?” I could hardly believe my ears when he finished my sentence for me. Lo and behold, he produced my treasured device from a drawer, safely wrapped in a Ziploc bag.

I could have kissed the surprised officer, but by now, I knew how the Japanese were; the waiter from last night’s dinner actually chased me down the street to return my tip.

I tried another tack: “Can I take your photo and upload it on Facebook? I want to tell people how nice Japanese people are!” He laughed and shook his head vigorously.

The experience taught me a couple of things. One, people will always surprise you. Two, don’t play with your phone so much (my mum will be so smug when she reads this). And three, never say never: I’ve just turned into one of those stark raving Japan fan-atics I once laughed at.

Because not only did their sense of honour save me over a thousand ringgit, it gave my roller-coaster of culinary, physical and emotional adventures the happy ending that all good holidays should have.

Alexandra Wong (www. book) believes that meeting the right people can make all the difference in a journey to a foreign land. You can follow her travel trails at

Tags / Keywords: Alexandra Wong, Navel Gazer, Nagoya, Ken Watanabe, sushi, sashimi, yakitori, shrine, cherry blossom

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