About a holiday…

Posted by on Feb 3, 2017 in Blog | 3 comments

JapanI recently returned from a wonderful family holiday in Japan. The selection of Japan was based largely on its amazing ski fields (a really important factor for my oldest son Nic) and that it would be culturally enriching while still being a country where you can get by with English – albeit that the occasional misunderstanding occurs.

So what are my reflections from this time?

First, holidays really matter, and it’s worth scrimping and saving a little during the year to ensure that you can have one. They also need to be long enough. I had two weeks of leave before we left, and it took all that time to stop my mind trawling over work matters that still needed attention. I never did fully succeed in breaking away from emails, but mercifully they were not a major intrusion. Not having internet access at times was less stressful than I thought it might be, and during those periods the world seemed to muddle along without my input – a sobering insight worth remembering!

Our group was made up of my wife Rosemary and I, our married son Nic, his wife Cat and their 21 month old Maya Rose, Cat’s fairly recently widowed mom Deborah, and our daughter Amy and her husband Aaron – so eight in all. It was a real treat to have so much time together and it was novel to be gently organised by now adult children who quickly grasped the intricacies of Japan’s rail system, and who were significantly more adventurous in their food choices than was my natural instinct. They were also committed to fitting more into each day than I would have, but they in turn compromised and agreed to slightly more luxurious (and expensive) hotel rooms than they would have selected. We didn’t all do the same thing each day – though given that a 21 month old was part of our group, were able to be together more often than I thought would be possible. Travelling with young children can go either way. For us it went the right way –  for which we were all really grateful. My insight from this, is that group travel is great. Though it requires a bit of give and take, what you lose is insignificant in comparison to what you gain.

Our first stay was in Tokyo. About 36 million people call the greater Tokyo metropolitan area (which is spread over 3 prefectures) home – or about one and a half Australia’s in one city. I assumed this would mean a bustling, dirty, frustrating, aggressive, crime-ridden and polluted nightmare. Only the first assumption was correct – it’s certainly a city that bustles. But it is clean, friendly, efficient, considerate, law-abiding and impressive. It underlined for me how underpopulated Australia is and in light of this, how mean we are in the number of places we allocate for refugees each year. Yes, I know that most of Australia is desert – but you know what, most of Japan is uninhabitable as well (for them it is the mountains that cause problems). In a fraction of the size of Australia, they accomodate a population of 126 million – or 5 Australias. It’s time for us to challenge some of our excuses. For those interested in the actual number of refugees we have received each year since WWII, here is a useful link.

Naturally we visited some Shinto and Buddhist templesReligion in Japan is fascinatingly syncretic. 83.9% hold to Shintoism, yet 71.4% are Buddhist. Yes, that makes for an impossible 155.3% – until you remember that most Japanese people adhere to both these faiths, in spite of there being some fairly significant differences between them. Oh – and add to this that about 60% of Japanese people claim to be atheists. It was explained to us that it was perfectly common to hold to Shintoism, Buddhism and Atheism simultaneously, whilst also joining in Christian Christmas festivities. No one can say it is not inclusive!

One of the more memorable visits was to the Buddhist temple in Zenkoji. We had been to see the snow monkeys (simply stunning), but a very heavy fall of snow had slowed that trip significantly, so we arrived at Zenkoji with just minutes to spare. The rush was a pity, as the key exercise at the temple is a walk through an underground tunnel in the pitch darkness – a walk that is supposed to simulate death – or to remind you of its inevitability. It is aimed to get you to think about what really matters in life, and how unimportant the things that encumber us actually are. The absolute darkness helps you to assess things differently.

It is actually a very dramatic and sobering exercise, and you are indeed in complete darkness – albiet for us, a fairly rushed walk in the dark. Whilst going through the tunnel, you are instructed to feel the walls carefully because hidden in the wall is the supposed key to paradise. “If you touch that”, we were told, “enlightenment will be yours.” Hmmm – that seemed to me to reduce an otherwise significant exercise to the silly – as if touching a key would magically change everything. But the image of the group of us (we were with a larger tour group at this point) groping around in the dark desperately trying to find the key to paradise, struck me as being surprisingly poignant – a little parable of people everywhere. And though we were in a Buddhist temple, I offered my prayer of praise to God that the light of Christ has dawned and that we no longer have to grope in the dark – desperately trying to find the key to paradise. I long that this message can be more effectively communicated to the people of Japan. Only 2% claim some form of allegiance to Christianity, so there is a long way to go.

The highlight for me was the time in the snow – largely spent near the ski fields of Hakuba. This really isn’t a site for advertising, but I am going to break my own rule here and give a link to the resort we stayed at – truely amazing. The staff were exceptional and went out of their way to ensure we were comfortable. They also threw in a huge number of bonuses that we weren’t expecting – including having an endless supply of free green curry, free hot (and cold) wine, free lollies (which you had to find) – and more beside. And of course, they had the onsens – Japanese hot water spring baths where etiquette insists that you bathe nude. Mercifully for us, in addition to gender separated onsens, the hotel also had private onsens for couples, and we happily made use of them.

People had told me about the onsens before the trip, and had wanted to know if I would participate – presumably interested in my view on public nudity. I had declared I wouldn’t – and didn’t use any public onsen (no, don’t expect any compromising photographs!) But being there challenged my attitude to this. Japan is not sexualized in the way that most other Western countries are. People don’t seem to obsess about their bodies or to view their bodies as a basis for anxious comparison. Indeed, I imagine that most Japanese people find it quaintly odd that visitors from other countries often baulk at stripping off, and wonder what our problem is. A highly sexualised era carries a very heavy price tag – an inability to view a naked body in anything but a sexual way being part of it. We have lost a lot, and I think Japan has something to teach us here.

In addition to rich cultural experiences, we did some super safe things – like visit Universal Studios and Disneyland. No, there was nothing distinctly Japanese about these – other than for the Japanese commentary. Having a 21 month old with us, we tried to find suitable rides for young children – largely without success. I had forgotten how menacing so many children’s stories are, and was stunned at the number of giants and skeletons that are part and parcel of rides advertised for young children. They even succeeded in making Winnie the Pooh a little frightening – really rather sad.  Maya Rose did not approve, and might not become the theme park addict that the rest of her family are. But I mustn’t be a hypocrite. My favourite ride was the Tower of Terror at Tokyo Disney Sea – a very clever version of the Giant Drop at Dreamworld (and a lot more creative). No point in trying to describe it – you simply must do it! And yes, it is scary. 

I could prattle on at far greater length, but hopefully this has given a little snapshot of a really special time. I hope you and yours can have some comparable experiences.

As always, nice chatting…

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments

  1. Delightful to read and some significant insights – thoughtful as ever, thanks Brian

  2. Sounds like a wonderful family experience – I’ve added Japan to my future travels list!
    I especially appreciate the shared tale of people grappling in the dark for the key to paradise. What a powerful image.

  3. That was a great description – almost feel as though I’ve been

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