Thursday, June 28, 2007


In case you think that I travel only to Italy, which couldn't be further from the truth, I give you the story of two weeks we spent in Japan in 1991.

My husband, the chemistry professor, was invited to take part in an exchange with a professor from the University of Yokohama, at their initiative. He was asked to give a series of lectures over one week to a group of graduate students. Later the professor, K, would come to Vancouver to do the same. Naturally I refused to be left behind, even though I was working, and after arranging holiday leave for me we decided to spend an extra week there, after his course was completed. Since I was paying for my airfare we looked around to find the cheapest fare and found it was offered by JAL, or the Japanese airline company. Funnily enough, when K came to Vancouver he found the cheapest fare by far was on the Canadian airline company.

When we arrived at the Narita airport, outside Tokyo, we were met by K who accompanied us on the very comfortable train journey into Tokyo. There our overnight hotel was very Western, but with the world's smallest bathtub. The next day we were taken to a high rise residence owned by the University of Yokohama where foreign students, mainly graduate students, were able to stay during their time in Japan. We had a very comfortable room there, with meals taken in their cafeteria, and while Alan went to the university each day I began to explore Yokohama.

Before we went to Japan I had briefly looked at a book about elementary Japanese. The wonderful thing about this language is that, like Italian, every letter is pronounced and there is no emphasis placed on any syllable, so it is quite easy to pronounce. Of course I only managed to learn a very few phrases in the short time I had, but I could say hello and goodbye and thank you and bow with the best of them. Of course, as we all know, Japanese is written using Kanji, which are Chinese characters borrowed by the Japanese who had no written language at the time. So when you look at a map, even though you know the street name is pronounced Kanton Road, its Kanji written symbols on the road sign are a mystery to the Western eye.

So there I was in Yokohama, ready to explore the city, but with a map which didn't help much. I had to navigate by going two blocks up one block across and so on. Well you get the picture. I was shown where the places I wanted to visit were on the map by people at the front desk of the residence, then I had to go forward always remembering landmarks so that I could return by travelling in reverse. Well it seemed to work and, although any number of lovely Japanese people, with little English, rushed up and tried to help the lady with map, I basically had to rely on figuring it out for myself. I thought, that since Yokohama is a major port city, there would be many foreigners, as there were in days gone by. But you know, during that week I never saw another Caucasian person around the city.

So let me tell you a little about Yokohama, which is a sister city and sister port to Vancouver. Before 1859 it was a sleepy little village, but on the signing by Japan of the Japan-US Treaty of Peace and Amity, followed by treaties with other nations, the port opened in June of 1859 and since then Yokohama has developed into a thriving city of 3.6 million people. It's the second largest in Japan, after Tokyo, which it abuts and frankly it's difficult to see where one ends and the other begins. Despite being completely destroyed by an major earthquake in 1923 and once again by the bombing during the Second World War it was completely rebuilt both times and remains one of Japan's most most important ports.

Now you didn't think you'd get this trip in one post, did you? No, this is Part I and you'll have to return to hear more. Later. Yes, there will be photos.

Of course the Japanese doll above belongs to me. No, I didn't buy it in Japan. It was a gift from a Japanese graduate student of my husband who came to work with him in the early sixties. Since the Japanese are so polite and nod and smile I don't think he realized for the first six months that she didn't really understand him. Of course by that time, she did. The doll is about 15 inches high and I never could get a glass case for her since she is holding a horse on a stick, which you can't see, behind her. So I dust her every so often with the vacuum attachment, but she'll never be an heirloom, although she is forty years old at least.


Gledwood said...

I had a real thing about Japan in my youth... my big regret is that I didn't bite the bullet and go for a degree in Japanese ... that might have altered the course of my life quite considerably ... but ho-hum. I've still got dictionaries and course books all over the place. I love the Japanese language but have not put the gumption into learning it... ho-hum again!
Great weekend? Sorry that is me. Brains addled. Sorry!!

MedStudentWife said...

I can't wait to hear more. I know people who have gone to teach English & kept on going back. It'll be nice to hear more about your memories.

The doll is lovely. I bet you had to think for a moment as to how old she is - probably seems like yesterday that you got her.

obtw.. I've added that mingle2 widget. I too am a "G", *sigh*. I'm kind of hoping its a "G" sliding into something closer to a "R".

The challenge is on :O

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Fabulous post, jmb. And what a lovely doll! Well done for learning some Japanese before your visit . I think it's so important and also polite to learn at least the politenesses of the country you are visiting - it makes such a difference. And well done for being adventurous enough to explore on your own. Can't wait for the next part and photos! Auguri.

Josie said...

JMB, the doll almost looks like a real person, at first glance. My brother has spent a lot of time in Japan, and taught me some of the Japanese phrases. Lucky you to have spent some time there. I would love to travel all through Asia. I think the culture is so beautiful (and the food...). My mother was fascinated with Japan as well, and my brother used to bring her Japanese art work, which I now have.

I'm looking forward to seeing your photos.


Lee said...

And for Chapter 11 I shall return....interesting story and I look forward to its continuation, jmb. :)

jmb said...

Hi Gleds,
That's interesting about your love of Japan. I don't think the language would be so hard to learn but to write that's another story.

jmb said...

Hi medstudentwife,

It was a pretty short trip so I didn't really get a good feel for the country but I loved what I saw of it.

jmb said...

Thanks WCLC, I'm always willing to go out and explore, but ususally I can read the signs which sure helps. It was a very funny feeling.

jmb said...

Hi Josie,
The face photographed very well. It only took 20 shots to get one that I liked. Luckily I just deleted all the rest.
Your brother is fortunate and now you are because you have the lovely Japanese art work.

jmb said...

Hi Lee,
Come back soon, there's more to come, with photos too

Eurodog said...

Interesting post, jmb.
The closest I got to Japan was a wonderful book called "Silk" by Alessandro Barricio. Charming book about a French silk trader.

jmb said...

Hi Eurodog,
I couldn't miss out on the opportunity to go when my husband went.
I love Seta, or Silk too. Read it in Italian. Don't you love the scene where she turns the tea cup and drinks from the same spot as he did. Very romantic. And the amazing ending.

Sienna said...

What an elegant and beautiful children our neighbor, was a Japanese lady, (married to a German)...her two boys spoke Australian, Japanese and German...the most beautiful little children, and they taught us some J and G!

My 13 yo niece is off on a music tour (school) to Japan in September.

Japan is a must to visit. Love hearing your travel stories JMB!


Janice Thomson said...

I am really looking forward to hearing more about Japan and seeing
photos of this trip Jmb! You certainly are a seasoned traveler and your posts reflect this very well. Till part II then...

Donnetta Lee said...

I thought the doll was a human for a bit there! What a great picture.

Back in the day, at the university, I was told if I were to take a course in Japanese I could recieve a degree in linguistics. Well, wouldn't ya know it, my then husband gets a job in Louisiana and we moved. No Japanese.

What a neat experience you had! Ah, memories.


jmb said...

Hi Sienna,
How fortunate you were in your neighbours, that was a neat experience for you.
Lucky niece. They sure didn't have interesting trips like that when I was a school girl.

jmb said...

Hi Janice,
It seems I have been around in my lifetime. Very lucky I have been in this regard, actually in lots of regards.

jmb said...

Hi donnetta lee
I thought her face came out very well in the photo.
Too bad you missed out on the Japanese, I don't think it would be too difficult to learn, at least superficially.

Ellee said...

What a wonderful experience, the doll looks so elegant and graceful.

I always like to learn some basic words when visiting new countries, I feel so helpless not understanding their language. But i imagine Japanese would be very challenging.

jmb said...

Hi Ellee,

I don't like that helpless feeling of not understanding the language either, although often I can't do anything about it.
I think Japanese, apart from writing, would be manageable once you have learned another language. Well superficially at least.

lady macleod said...

love the doll, love the story. You have not seen hysterical until you see a 5'10" redheaded highlander in Tokyo asking for the "yokushitsu"!

I look forward to Part II and the photographs.

jmb said...

Gosh Lady M, you've been everywhere. Are you sure you're a Scot and not a gypsy?

YTSL said...

Very nice post and I look forward to reading more about Japan on your blog in the not so distant future. :)

jmb said...

Hi Ytsl,
Please come back, not only for the photo hunt

ipanema said...

Oh, wait for another 10 years, she'll be antique! :)

Ok, will wait for your Part 2. As of now, sayonara!

jmb said...

Hi Ipanema,
Well she'll be antique but whether she'll be in good shape is another matter.
Part II coming up later.