Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 21, 2017

© Dr Brent Shacter

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I prescribe a trip to... Japan

An endocrinologist and oncologist discover the beauty of Tokyo and Kyoto in bloom

Last year, my husband called me in the middle of the day to tell me that Air Canada was offering a promotional “deal” to Japan that we couldn’t afford to miss. So throwing all caution and call schedules to the wind, we arrived in Tokyo last April at the beginning of cherry blossom season.

Over two weeks, we travelled on the wonderful bullet train from Tokyo to Nagoya, Kyoto, Hiroshima, the island of Miyajima and lastly Osaka. Japan presented such a unique experience for us that I decided to indulge my love of writing and keep a travel diary. Space permits me to share a taste of this wonderful trip, hopefully just enough to inspire you to plan your own visit one day.

Close to the madding crowds

My lasting impression of Tokyo was of crowds and crowds of people. Maybe because we went out on a Saturday and it was cherry blossom time — when the country goes into a frenzy of blossom, or hanami, viewing — we encountered some of the densest crowds imaginable. And with our North American penchant to walk on the right, where the Japanese follow the British convention of keeping and driving on the left, we literally kept running into these massive crowds. People are strangely impersonal and polite at the same time. There was no pushing or shoving; just everyone on their cell phones, walking around us because we were always on the wrong side.

Saturday evening was particularly interesting. It seemed to us that most of the 33 million inhabitants of Tokyo must be under the age of 30 and out for the evening. We had great trouble trying to maneuver around the train/subway station. Plus, I became distracted by people watching. The Japanese sense of style is unique and I admire the youths’ bravado in how they wear their clothes.

They have an eclectic interpretation of Western style. Anything goes, the more colour and patterns at once the better. Hats, scarves of all description, usually tiny purses and cell phones with ear pieces complete the look.

But I was also surprised at the number of young women dressed in traditional kimonos complete with elaborate hairpieces picking their way carefully using those two-toed socks and platform thong sandals. It was probably the cherry blossoms that brought out these outfits.

Geisha territory

I expected Kyoto to be the highlight and it was. Especially at cherry blossom time! Where in Tokyo, the crowds are constant and oppressive, taking part in the national frenzy of cherry blossom viewing; but here the crowds were manageable. They stretched out along the numerous walkways through the older eastern section of the city. This area is a crossword puzzle of small alleyways and canals. The trees line the streets and droop enchantingly over the water. Everyone strolls along and takes pictures.

Not only is Kyoto is enchanting, it’s delicious. Our highlight was enjoying the famous kaiseki ryori, a traditional, ritualized, multi-course dinner consisting of more than a dozen small dishes served in beautiful porcelain, clay pottery or lacquer bowls. The many courses included tiny morsels of delicious vegetables served inside a wooden box wrapped up like a gift and a sashimi course. The centrepiece was a hot pot in which our kimono-dressed server cooked us a broth with slices of duck along with greens that were delicious.

And the setting! a traditional house with small screens separating the rooms, tatami mats and low tables. At last, my years of yoga paid off! I started in the traditional posture, sitting on my knees, but even I couldn’t last too long. Soon enough, I was trying to surreptitiously swing my legs to the side, conscious of the trio of women sitting properly next to us. Of course, I bumped the table each time I moved my legs.

As for my husband, he spent most of his time with his legs stretched, peeking out from my side of the table — elegant, we weren’t. I did take comfort from the fact that half-way through our meal the trio of Japanese women next to us had also swung their legs to the side.

This quiet meal which took two hours was quite a contrast to the usual Japanese style of dining. In general, there is little lingering over a meal here; it's eat and leave. But on that night we had self-proclaimed “mama-sans” actually hovering over us. In this tiny, four-table establishment, these five elderly ladies wearing white pinafores doted on us. They didn’t even take offense when my husband accidentally spilled his beer everywhere (something to do with sitting on his knees). They cleaned him up, clucked over him and brought him a fresh beer. I think he wanted me to take note.

A fan of art

The next day brought more exquisite houses and temples with their gardens. And then, the great adventure of finding what was described as the best fan shop in all Kyoto. Not that I wanted to shop necessarily, but if Kyoto is considered the centre for kimono and fans, then this shop must be wonderful. Of course, finding it was eventful. We first had to wind our way through the tiny alleys covered in cherry blossoms, past shops of all descriptions, from the loveliest to the tackiest, all of them swarming with people.

We finally found it, down a little alley. And what a shop! First, it was perfectly quiet in the shop, not an easy feat for Japan I have now come to appreciate. Then, the line of shop clerks stood silently by while I wandered, no one approached me which I did find unusual. In general, as soon as you enter clerks will very graciously offer to help you.

I was somewhat overwhelmed by the selection. There were fans of every size, material, colour and design. Intrigued, I went upstairs where I knew the best fans would be and I wasn’t disappointed. There was a small indoor Japanese garden with a bench, a few stones and a bit of art, all meant to soothe the soul. Then there was the display of old, antique fans — delicate, intricate, dusty and turned at the edges. I couldn’t get enough.

I was almost overwhelmed by the selection, until I spotted a real treasure: fan art. It was a pile of fan-shaped paintings quite similar to what could be drawn on the fan before it is folded. There were shoguns, samurai and simple irises. I bought the latter, plus a small tea ceremony fan, hand-painted with cherry blossoms. The young shop girl who attended me gave every attention and gentle guidance in simple English. And she wrapped my items with the utmost care; the package itself was a work of art.

Ordinary kindness

That brings me to my impression of the Japanese. Everyone wants to help: from the young man in Nagoya who led us to another restaurant which would serve us what we were looking for when we couldn’t find the one from the guide book or the young waitress who spoke no English but was determined to guide us through the Japanese menu.

We just had to stop in the street to look at our map and someone would stop and offer to help. On the subway and bus, all the elderly, and there were many, are given seats. And you can trust everyone, no one will even look, let alone touch, your belongings. When was the last time, you could leave your bag in a restaurant and go to the bathroom without concern?

Of course, you do have to watch out for the gangs. We first noticed them in Nagoya. Walking back from dinner at 9PM, they came out in hordes and in their gang colours: black and white. Black suits with white shirts, that is. The office workers don’t leave their desks until 8 or 9PM when they hit the streets heading for bars and restaurants.

During the day however, it was gangs in navy blue. That is the ubiquitous colour of school uniforms. Many have a military theme, either high-necked uniforms consisting of jacket, pants and tie while others have a square, navy collar and hat. The little girl who won my heart was no more than six years old, in her little “Madeleine” sailor uniform and hat, sitting by herself on the subway in Kyoto, folding orange origami. I was too shy to try to take her picture.

Island mystique

I can’t leave Japan without describing Miyajima. It’s a mystical island retreat. The day we arrived, it was cloudy and drizzling. Mist, clouds and rain swept between the hills, filling the valleys then emptying them just as quickly as the clouds moved in and out. There were shrines everywhere! The main large orange shrine gate, or torii, sat serenely in the water welcoming us to the island while tall graceful pagodassent their spires upward to compete with the hills.

As friendly as all Japanese seem to be, the locals we encountered here were even more so. I think it is because not only is their island a tourist destination; it’s also a place of serenity and contemplation. It is the kind of place you come to rest. And you will most definitely do that in a traditional inn with plain tatami mats, spare furnishings, where you will be served dinner in your room before the traditional evening bath.

So, plan your own adventure in Japan. Meet the modern fast-moving youth culture that still manages to integrate with their ancient traditions. And if you can, come in late March or early April and find yourselves swept along with the crowds through the swirling clouds of cherry blossoms overhead

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

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  1. On January 14, 2011, Dr. Juliana Losier said:
    We are planning a trip to Japan with our 10 and 14 year old in March ... ,enjoyed your writing and read it with the Family... Would be nice to have some a dresses if hotels/ ryokans to stay that you liked...

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