Kon’nichiwa Japan

According to reports, Japan will be open to foreign tourism sans restrictions come the middle of this month. Since Covid presented itself uninvited to the world, all sorts of onerous conditions for visits to Japan had been put in place and kept there assiduously, to the extent that the country was effectively off-limits as a tourist destination. Especially to people like me, who like to organize all their travel independently of guides, travel agents, and bureaucracy in general.

But now, official sources tell me that all this is out the window as of 11 October 22. A red-letter day indeed.

I love Japan. It is my favorite country bar none to explore. Not even my own country, Australia, can measure up for this purpose, though it might come in a distant second. The people of Oz are great to deal with even if their sardonic take on life can grate at times. And there are some wonderful things to see in Oz, especially the blood red massif of Uluru rising out of a dead flat plain, in my opinion the most thrilling sight in the world. And the palette from which the colours of the Australian landscape are drawn is like no other I have ever encountered. Where else can you see a blue like that of an Australian sky?

But, regretably, Australia falls down badly when it comes to cuisine. Outside of the major cities, the food is quite disappointing, with a couple of notable exceptions such as the fresh barramundi to be found in the Gulf region. Not so in Japan, where the cuisine everywhere – food and drink – is in my opinion unmatched in the world.

And the people are so very friendly. Take the photo above, snapped by me in a modest little restaurant in Nagasaki in 2019. That is the proprietor you see, welcoming us. Look at the way her whole face lights up. That is no stitched-on smile such as celebrities or spruikers might flash when on the make. That is the real deal. And I have many other photos of people like this – from Tokyo, Osaka, Fukuoka, etc. – all of them with a smile so genuine it makes McCoy look like an outrageous pretender.

I should tell the story of how we found this restaurant. It was about 5 p.m. when Janet and I were reconnoitering for possible eating places for that evening. It was closed of course, but we thought we might pull back the curtain a tad and take a surreptitious peek inside. As we did so, Janet tripped on the step and fell flat on her face. She literally fell into the restaurant.

That’s when the lovely young lady above came quickly on the scene. She fussed over Janet, ready to give her first aid on the spot, except that Janet was (mercifully) uninjured. She was profusely apologetic, even though we and our unwarranted timidity were fully to blame. She helped Janet to her feet, and we went away. But we came back for dinner that evening. And every subsequent evening while we were in Nagasaki.

Needless to say the food, the saki, the service, and the company were everything we could have hoped for and more.

My very first visit to Japan had been several decades earlier, in the 1970s, when the Company I then worked for as a young research scientist sent me to Tokyo to attend a couple of technical conferences. I was completely taken aback when my application to the Company had been accepted and, even though back then Japan was not my preferred overseas destination, I grabbed the opportunity with open arms.

From the moment I touched down, Japan seemed like a thoroughly alien place. Putting my misgivings aside, I checked into my plush hotel, and registered for the conferences. From the very start of proceedings, it became obvious to me that the participants, mostly male and American, were from the dyed-in-the-wool publish-or-perish brigade. None of what they presented had any application to the research I was doing back home, and perhaps not elsewhere. I was bored. Worse still, lunch was a deadly affair where participants sat around long tables and spent their time desperately trying to ‘network’. This was LinkedIn with a tangible face, and on steroids. I decided quite early on that this scene was not for me. From the very first day, I attended only enough of the sessions to placate my conscience, i.e. to make me feel I was doing the right thing by the Company and its shareholders, who were, after all, paying my way.

I hit the streets of Tokyo, according to my preconceptions an alien place. It turned out to be a cornucopia of wonders. Amazing department stores, much bigger than anything back home, whose purpose seemed to be to delight and entertain its customers while it took their money. Half a dozen plump peaches, gift wrapped with bright ribbons and all the rest, at the point of sale. A Metro system that whisked you near-instantaneously to the other side of the city, to the bright lights of Shinjuku for example. Spectacular and drama-filled dance routines, enough to thrill to the back teeth any innocent abroad that, as I was to realize decades later, were probably based on the famed awa-odori tradition of the city of Tokushima. The ubiquitous vending machines, almost as numerous as people, making me wonder perhaps if Japan had invented them. And the frighteningly life-like plastic models of weird-looking foods on display in the windows of eating houses. And, of course, the bullet trains.

I took one of these trains when I decided to spend a weekend in Kyoto. I stayed there in lavish accommodation at the Company’s expense. Without feeling any guilt now, I booked a room that had its very own private Japanese garden.

I also took day trips to Hakone and Nikko. All the people I met were genuinely delighted to see me, as per the lady from Nagasaki in the photo. I found to my amazement that it was impossible to get lost or stranded in Japan. Wait a tad and some form of transport would appear like magic, in timely fashion, and on time, to take you to your destination. Was this a dream?

There was one fly in the ointment: the food. It looked so utterly strange. Sushi was totally unfamiliar in Oz back then. All that raw fish seemed to me about as appetizing as a shit sandwich. So, how did I handle the situation? I did what any sensible person would do. For the first two or three days, I ate nothing but ice-cream.

There comes a point where such a diet, no matter how good the ice-cream, will leave you feeling desperately famished. I had a problem. Finally, driven by a gnawing emptiness of the gut, I braved a restaurant in Tokyo around lunch time. At a neighbouring table, I noticed a gaijin, probably American, eating something that didn’t look too raw. I asked the waiter for the same.

To say it hit the spot would be an understatement. It hit so many spots all at once that spots all over the shop would have been ducking for cover. I asked my neighbour what I had been eating. He replied, Unagi, going on to explain that this was smoked eel on a bed of rice.

It was delicious.

Unsurprisingly, I ate lots of unagi from this point on. Then, one day, feeling unaccountably emboldened, I entered a restaurant that, judging by its window displays, specialized in raw fish. I sat at the bar with Japanese people all around me, and ordered miso soup followed by sashimi, washed down with Kirin beer.

This was assuredly one of the greatest meals of my life. Not just because it satisfied the taste test, but because it represented my initiation into what is arguable the world’s greatest cuisine. Tokyo was no longer an alien place. I had embraced it, and it had embraced me.

Let’s return to the present day. In fact, let’s anticipate 11 October 22. As I write this, I realize that’s only two days hence. Most likely, you will be reading this post after this crucial date has passed. This is the date, as I mentioned, when truly independent travel to Japan shall become available to all those desiring it.

So why haven’t we bought plane tickets?

We’ll bide our time. Let the dust settle. Let others more rash test the waters. Let the airlines sort out their myriad problems.

We’ll choose our time. Our excuse is we want to see the autumn colours, starting in Hokkaido and wending our way south. So we plan to make the trip starting in October 2023.

Kon’nichiwa Japan.