Japan: Land Of The Lucky Cat

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Last month I toyed with a loose commitment to revive my travelling efforts, and indeed I did. Though the trips were spontaneous, it is the results that count and I was quite the over achiever. This month started off with a quick hop over to America, where I have not been for a few years, followed by a wonderful few days in Nagoya. Though neither were new country destinations counting towards my quest to visit one hundred countries, they were nothing short of wonderful trips.

It is embarrassing to admit that despite my many trips to Japan, I have never been there in the summer. Being an avid snowboarder, I look forward to desperate blog mentions of the appearance of Yukimushi, the small insects that according to Japanese folklore signify the coming of snow in Hokkaido. I then eagerly check the daily snow reports for news of the first drop of snow, and it is soon all systems go to squeeze in as many trips to Japan as possible in order to frolick in that divine powdery snow that you do not find anywhere else in the world.

Arriving in Nagoya in summer was a rather bizarre experience. I think back to snippets of Heston Blumenthal’s food on TV, and I imagine how diners felt expecting to eat a fruit when it was in fact chicken liver pate dressed up as a mandarin. My mind and body are so accustomed to that first hit of winter that creeps into the aerobridge as you step off the plane, a totally different feeling from the coldest of summer air conditioning, that I felt nothing short of utter confusion as I was embraced by heat and humidity. While I kept expecting to feel that cold blast of air and see the customary procession of ankle high Uggs, I was greeted by none other than trendy T-shirts and summer pants.

Nevertheless, once I had overcome the sensory confusion, I felt so at home. I adore everything that is Japan. I love feeling safe and secure upon arriving, knowing that whoever you will interface with for the next few days is going to be genuine and honest. I eagerly anticipate the novelty of leaving my valuables on tables without having to worry about items disappearing so expertly that you do not even realise they are gone. I love how things work in such an efficient manner, where buses depart as the clock’s second hand hits sixty, and you have no problem finding your bus because things just work in such an orderly manner.

I love the politeness of the people, and how everyone is willing to help, so much so that I feel terrible watching a female or elderly attendant loading shopping laden suitcases into the car with no expectation that you might relieve them of their task, or when someone goes out of their way to give you directions to your destination. The Japanese are such proud people too, and so they should be. Their country is so naturally beautiful, from cherry blossoms to snow-capped mountains to Hawaiian-esque beaches in Okinawa, and everything they make is beautifully crafted and packaged. And above all, I love the food.

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There is an inner glutton in me, that is by and large successfully suppressed. However, my inner glutton found its soulmate glutton on this trip, and together they rampaged through the city devouring everything in sight. In three days they had eaten their way through all the usual suspects and more – from tasty gyoza to crunchy tempura, warm fluffy tamago, roe laden pasta and the famous Cochin chicken. With so few days to try everything, a typical single meal would consist of stops at multiple restaurants, with each restaurant representing one course of the meal.

Finally, the eating binge culminated in one heavenly dinner – a sleek beef tasting platter, consisting of different brands of beef, all proudly flagged for post-dinner discussion. They were all whiter than they were red, and would magically burst into mouthfuls of steak juice as soon as you put them into your mouth. It was a glorious evening of exploration, resulting in a pseudo-beef high, and with a strong general consensus that Matsusaka trumps everything.

Having consumed most of the city and barely able to walk, we decided to head out to the countryside on our last day, and booked our bus tickets to Shirakawago, a beautifully quaint Unesco heritage town about two hours away from Nagoya by bus, where triangular roofs peek out from brilliant emerald fields. A great day out, and much needed exercise after our gluttonous few days.

Though I have visited many places, Japan remains one of my true favourites, now not only for the snow but for everything it offers. It is such an iconic place but the one “icon” that I am always fond of is the ubiquitous Maneki-neko, the Feng Shui “money cat” – always cute, always smiling and always welcoming. Call it superstition or culture, but every time I catch sight of it, be it in a shop window or at someone’s front door, I cannot help but think of all the positive vibes that it brings to the place. Funny how a little ceramic ornament can always make me feel welcome. Maybe Feng Shui has got it right. Japan certainly has – I for one seem to keep going! Now, if all the other countries followed suit … I’m doomed!