Sunday, 25 May 2008

I Do

Saturday morning dawned, well, before dawn for Satomi and I on this weekend of our vows. Climbing into our newly minted hire car, we made the short trip into Roma Street to pick up the first of our interstate (and international) guests - my Mum. It was to be a fairly momentous occasion, as Mum was to meet my soon-to-be bride for the first time on that dark, smoky train platform just one day before we were to be wed. The introductions had to be short and sweet, however, as the deadlines of the weekend were tight and imposing.

Stopping briefly to unload our human cargo at the Albion Love Den, we fired up the car for yet another pick up - Satomi's parents. This was to be another momentous occasion with this being the first trip to a western country for both Otosan and Okasan. Waiting at the pitifully small and over-crowded greeting area at the international airport was probably the first time a huge wave of anxiety and nerves overtook me. The previous weeks and months of getting this ball going had kicked in, and all of our plans and ideas were firmly underway. And, standing there amongst all of the other eager and watchful eyes, trained hungrily at the automatic doors which separated the customs area from the general public, I suddenly realised how much of an effort so many people were making to share this weekend with us. And with that, I had a pang of anxiety, wishing everything would be to their liking.

Before too long, the Nagai family representatives were spied and collected and we headed out of the terminal and into Australia proper. Satomi's parents were staying at a hotel just 2 blocks away from the Love Den, so I left the family to settle in for a bit and headed back down the hill to hang out with Mum. It was good seeing her again after about 18 months of being apart, and despite some early jitters, I think she was glad to have made the decision to come up for the occasion. We shared a smoke, a coffee and a chat before the Nagai's arrived for the inevitable cross-cultural introduction uncomfortable-ness. I was a little anxious that the cultural differences would be too vast for someone like my Mum (and, for that matter, Satomi's parents) to overcome in order for them to connect in some way. But, within minutes, omiyage was being exchanged and breakfast was being served (which Mum found particularly fascinating, with Otosan sucking down his standard egg on rice and miso soup heart-starter). And, through the stilted but comprehensive translated conversation, it was clear that there was one bond which transcended all things cultural - and that was the shared bond of being a parent. Okasan and my Mum in particular seemed to hit it off, to the point where Otosan seemed to feel very much on the outer and so started wandering around the Love Den taking random pictures of the strange things he came across.

With the other travelling guests being looked after (Steve-O was sorting out the Dave and Mizi show, and both Dad and Jen were making their own arrangements) it left us alone to share some quality family time together - which, in all reality, would probably be the only time we would get to do so. The conversation ambled into the early afternoon, before Mum made her way up the hill to check into her hotel room, and Satomi took her parents up to Toombul for essential supply shopping. Which left me in a little bit of a hole, getting some unexpected me-time. I, of course, fritted this away by playing Xbox and smoking way too many cigarettes - but that's to be expected, I guess. As the afternoon gave way into evening, the entire collected crowd of family and very close friends (Steve, Dave and Mizi) rendezvoused at the Love Den before descending on Thaiways for a mass feast. For the extended Connolly (and ex-Connolly) clan, this was a big enough event - with Mum and Dad seeing each other for the first time in about 23 years (according to Pat). Added to that this was the first meeting for Dad and my soon-to-be wife, and that all around the table we were either meeting each other anew, or reacquainting ourselves with relos we may have lost touch with, and you can get a bit of a taste for how special this night turned out. As these things usually do, the night focused back into the Love Den, with drinks, conversations and general good vibes all 'round. Our friendly possum once again made a cameo and became the star of the show (as she often does), before people started filtering out and leaving us, the happy couple, to ourselves. As we bedded down as a couple on that Saturday night, it sunk in to both of us that this was to be our last night as, well... single people.

Sunday, 30 March 2008. It was not our first choice of dates, being changed to accommodate people and events (our first choice turned out to be Easter Sunday), but it turned out to be a great choice in the end. The Sunday before, which was our original date, was crappy and rainy, but looking out the window as we awoke, we realised there was someone on our side. It turned out to be one of those perfect Brisbane days with the sky so blue and crisp that it almost crackles. There was no time to soak it up, however, with deadlines and pressing errands stealing our time even more so than yesterday. A quick trip up to the northern suburbs secured our flowers for the event, and as we arrived back, Otosan and Okasan were heading down the hill already prepped and ready to go. Before long, Steve arrived with Dave and Mizi and the bridal crew were off to Jinna's place for the day of preparations. The groom's party had one more task to achieve - arguably the most important one of the day (apart from the event itself) - the collection of the impressive Dreamy Donut wedding cake. Dave was given painstakingly clear instructions on the setting up of this cake, before our event organiser, MC, stage manager and all-round good guy Alan arrived to collect his gear (and Dave) to set up the bowls club for the reception. Soon after Steve-O departed to prepare himself and his parents, leaving me to my own devices. It was probably the worst move of the whole day, with that slight window of opportunity allowing the creeping nerves to take a real hold on my psyche and leave me a shaking, quivering mess. Mum's arrival eased the nerves slightly as she set about making sure her son got readily prepared for what was meant to be the biggest day of his life. She obviously succeeded in that mission, by delivering a slightly inwardly dishevelled (but outwardly suave!) groom to the Newstead Part rotunda in time and ready to go.

After a quick set up, I was thrust into the role of meeter and greeter for the steady, but thankfully small, trickle of guests attending. Masking my extreme nervousness, I cycled through the groups, thanking them all for sharing this day with us (and was quietly relieved to see absolutely no suits... yay!). I resisted the urge to chain smoke my nerves away, but instead found myself battling a monumental case of dry mouth which would make even the most hardened of pot smokers weep at its grip. Steve's Mum's bottle of water went a little way to ease the pain, but it was too little too late to save this little black duck from the next 45 minutes or so trying desperately to will his mouth into producing at least some kind of moisture.

All of those thoughts and nerves disappeared almost the instant I looked up to the top of the walk-way to see this gleaming, bright and sparkling figure in white. Only seeing the dress briefly before the event, I had no idea how it would look up close... and it seemed Satomi was intent on making the wait even longer, as for some unknown reason, they waited at the top of the path for a good 10 minutes or so before deciding to come down. With her arm entwined into the crook of her Dad's elbow, she eventually made her way down the long pathway behind her 2 bridesmaids - Mizi and Catherine. Greeting her at the top of the rotunda was a little surreal, with her beauty being something I can still not fathom. In front of the eyes of all of our closest friends and family, I felt on top of the world and scarcely heard a word of our celebrant's opening stanzas as I swam in the vision in front of me. With Otosan presenting his eldest daughter's hand to mine, the ceremony proper started to take shape. Saying the things we were prompted to say, and kissing in all the right places, the ceremony went without a hitch (apart from the ring being a little bit too tough to slide onto her finger) and it was over before I thought it had really even began.

After some extended photo opportunities (why does everyone own a bloody digital camera these days!!), the guests began their slow amble up the road to the bowls club, leaving the bridal and family party behind to get the official photos. It was only then that we realised that Steve's parents had high-tailed it home without the hire chairs that were supposed to be packed into their car before they left. Adding insult to injury, it appeared they had decided not to be burdened by their mobile phone for the afternoon, and so were impossible to get a hold of to get them to come back. Faced with a decision, Steve and I decided to shoulder half the load each and walk up the road to the bowls club, hopefully to have them collected at some later time. While it wasn't the most comfortable or elegant of events to have occurred on the wedding day, I couldn't help thinking that if this was the worst thing that could happen today, then I would be a very happy man.

As the party was already in full swing, Satomi and I made a graceful entrance to the sounds of Eddie Vedder's Big Hard Sun which heralded the beginning of what was to be a great afternoon and blissful evening. Cutting yet more photo opportunities short, I bee-lined it for the bar for a much need ale to relieve my still parched throat and mouth... oh, and made sure I got my new lovely wife a wine while I was at it. With the sun setting over the bowling green, the speeches were the first cab off the rank for the afternoon's "formalities". Best man Steve took to the stage first and set the bar too high for the rest of the speakers to come, including yours truly. His speech, peppered with in-jokes, and stories from both of our pasts (thankfully none of them embarrassing), had the room equally divided with laughter and tears. Unfortunately, Catherine had to follow this great speech and she did well with regaling stories of Satomi's past and welcoming me into her Brisbane family. A couple of more speeches later and we were introducing the real entertainment for the afternoon - Fretfest's own rising star Dave Di Marco. His short set was punctuated with Alan himself getting behind the mic and belting out a stirring rendition of David Gray's Please Forgive Me which prompted an impromptu wedding waltz.

Demolishing the white Lindt chocolate doughnut cake signalled the end of the night's formalities, as we settled into the evening. The night turned out almost exactly as planned - a gentle, intoxicated evening amongst our loved ones. With just the right amount of sweetness and craziness (thanks mostly to the Kelly gang), it ventured long past the planned finish time of 7pm. As the bar tab refused to nudge the limit we'd imposed on it, we went open slather and devoured as much drink as we could collectively handle. So much so, that we were caught with our shoes off and bowls in hand trying to drunkenly master the gentle game in as much drunken humour as we could (and hoping that the white shoe brigade wouldn't think any less of us for doing so). The rest of the evening was rather uneventful - apart from Steve being refused service for being too drunk and the Kelly's being warned off the green for trying to reverse the past indiscretions of the Australian cricket team against their fellow country-men by trying to bowl lawn bowls over-arm - and we slowly dwindled in numbers. Before long, we were piling into a taxi and heading back to the Love Den.

Opening the door to the Love Den as husband and wife was... well, to be honest, apart from our costumes, it felt no different to any other night, really. However, through the slightly drunken haze, we readied ourselves for bed surrounded by a warm and loving embrace that can only come from a day such as this. It was an enveloping warmth of the knowledge that from this day forth, this person who was sharing my house was to be doing so for the rest of my life, and also a warmth from the loving knowledge that all of those people there today were going to be there forevermore to ensure that no matter what sort of life we forge ahead with, it will be happy and joyous and wonderful. And that was exactly the sort of feeling I was aiming for when sketching out the wedding all those months (or weeks) ago.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Leading up to I Do

Starting a new life is never easy. And, heading back to the Albion Love Den following our blissful 2 week introduction to Japan (for me) and 2 week goodbye to Japan (for Satomi) was a little overwhelming. Initially, though, it was a little puzzling. My flatmate for the past 6 months, the Angry German Rock Star Ingo, was completely absent, which was most unusual. I had suggested to him before leaving for Japan that Satomi and I would be keen to have the place to ourselves when we got back, but I had not intended it to mean that he should scarper before we got back. A scrawled note on the kitchen table, however, alluded to something a little more believable: he had met "someone" and was staying at her place! Nice one, bruvva!

With Ingo moved out, we set about the task of settling in and making the place ours, rather than just mine. Sure, Albion hasn't really changed in the years (and thanks to Steve-O for pointing it out in his best man speech), but it has changed enough in the recent months to have me looking at it in a whole new light. Satomi has moved permanently into my bedroom, naturally, which has meant that logistically, my living space has been halved. But, to compensate, we now have a spare room! Which has come in handy for when the odd drunken guest needs a crash point.

Satomi also started a new job, in the bosom of all things salad-related at Mrs Crocket's. Amongst other things, this has allowed us more time to hang out together and has also meant I am now eating "proper" lunches made lovingly and sometimes painstakingly each morning. My system doesn't know what hit it! We've also settled into Brisbane-city life, with weekends enjoying the beauty and splendour of this fair city. It's been fun rediscovering some of things I started to take for granted around this place. We even got to hang out up at the gorgeous Woodford Folk Festival around New Year's, thanks to our good friends at Fretfest!

And, while spending some serious time just hanging out and enjoying the loving vibes, there was always this one huge event hanging over our heads - our pending wedding. Much to the angst and chagrin of some of our loved ones, we naturally left the planning of this momentous occasion to the very last minute. For us, though, the day was not meant to be a big, stage-managed and controlled event, rather a fluid, casual and relaxed affair which spoke of both of our personalities. And so, in that spirit, we leisurely approached the sharp end of the planning wedge early into the new year.

Focusing on the key areas of who, where and what, we narrowed down the field of ideas and plans into a basic framework. We settled on an outdoor event at one of the places I hold dear in Brisbane - the rotunda at Newstead Park. Nestled within the crook of an elbow of the Brisbane River, the rotunda is surrounded by huge majestic pine and palm trees, and provides sweeping views both up the river towards Newstead, and down towards the plush Hamilton hill. The choice of the reception venue was easy from that point, with the Booroodabin Bowls Club just across the road proving the perfect blend of a chilled atmosphere, flexibility and a relaxed attitude to what we wanted to do with it (it helped that, by coincidence, an old mate was now running the joint).

The guest list was probably the hardest thing to come to an agreement on. We had both agreed the cliched "small, intimate wedding" was what we wanted. That was fine, but with both of us having extended groups of 'associates' it was hard to whittle the guest list down to a really good size. We finally worked it down to about 35, which comprised of really close friends and our immediate family. Despite some initial confusion, Satomi's parents worked out that they were able to make it out to Australia, which meant the day would have an added special element.

With the big picture scoped out and sorted, the last few months were left to panicky planning and organising of the little, but important, details to make sure the day was exactly what we wanted it to be. One of the early consternations was the choice of outfit, with my idea of a very relaxed event being blown out of the water by Satomi's early purchase of a full wedding gown. While I was initially quite upset about this development, it took the counsel of those much wiser and experienced in these things to make me see it from the girl's perspective. And while it meant that I was now forced to wear a stupid suit, I made it abundantly clear early on that it would be a dressed down suit with no hint of fancy crap. Heck, I was even steering clear of going near ties! So with the outfit sorted and the lady beavering away sorting all the other details out for the ceremony, I was left to my own devices to organise and manage the reception part of the agenda.

Well, that was the initial intention. Satomi's interest in all things wedding took over from my almost complete disdain and apathy for it, so she became much more part of the event organising. With me being left in my little realm of sorting the entertainment and polishing up a meaningful ceremony speech, I was more than happy with leaving the other aspects (such as what colour ribbons to put up on the walls) up to the others. On the music front, however, I was more than pleased to offer one of our Fretfest darlings, David Di Marco, the chance to serenade us on our special day. Combined with a newly acquired 80gb iPod, I had more than my hands full with making sure the event was at least as musically special as it would be in every other way.

With time slipping away, I spent the week before the event officially on holidays, but as busy as ever. My go card had never had such a solid work out as that week, with numerous trips across town to tie all the annoying loose ends together. A Friday dawned, Satomi and I breathed a sigh of relief with everything worked out and ready to go. As of Saturday morning, with numerous friends and family arriving from interstate and overseas, it would be very much "go time" and the event we had been working on and planning would swing into life and sweep us up in its heady motion of joy, reunion and love... just the way had wished it would all that time ago when I popped the question.

Friday, 16 May 2008

8 months later...

It's been 8 months since the last post, hey? Which means it's been 8 months since Satomi and I started our new life together back at the Albion Love Den. Some could say we've been slack for not posting any entries since then, but they'd be wrong. You see, not much has happened in the past 8 months... it's been pretty quiet, actually. You could say it's been pretty boring. Not much to talk about, really.

Mind you, that's a complete lie. The past 8 months have been fairly busy to be honest, with a combination of getting a new job (for Satomi), settling in to the new permanent living arrangements (for me... a harder task than I initially thought), buying new stuff for the Love Den, finishing off an exciting run of Fretfest's Find of The Year at QPAC, birthdays, Christmas, Woodford Folk Festival... oh, and that minor little thing called a wedding! After those major hurdles were tackled, we set our sights on the mission of completing the next step of the visa arrangements, which went swimmingly.

So, as this blog is supposed to be our record of this moment in our lives, I promise to spend the next few days expanding on each of the major milestones we've overcome in the past 8 months. Stay tuned...

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Travel Diary - September 3, 4 and 5

Days 13, 14 and 15: Inami, Osaka, Brisbane

It came around too quickly. I only just got there, if felt, and I was turning around and heading back out the door again! Monday was our last official day at Satomi’s home in Inami. After 33 years (on and off) of Satomi calling this place “home”, she was about to walk out the door and spend the rest of her life coming to this place as only a visitor. Understandably, the emotion was thick in the air, but we still managed a couple of necessary errands and an ‘interesting’ visit to her grandma’s.

After skirting around town to visit the bank and city hall, we popped into grandma’s place to pay our respects and say goodbye. We were immediately ushered into the ‘formal’ part of the house and were shown her pride and joy – a solid gold Buddhist shrine which she had recently had refurbished. The thing was so intricate and immaculate, with rows upon rows of finely carved gold shelving which delved deep into the cupboard where it was stored. Even more fascinating to me was a framed photograph of her grandpa from when he was a youngster and enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army. He saw active duty during World War II and the beautifully crafted display case showed off his official papers, as well as the medals he received for his service.

We retreated back to the formal living room (I guess you could call it) where we sipped the now ubiquitous green tea and chatted more about the differences between our two cultures. It was here that grandma revealed to me (through Satomi) that as Satomi was the first grand-child, she was (and still is) a very special part of everyone’s hearts… so it was vitally important that I understand that and that they approve of her choice of suitor. Luckily, it seemed she did. Which she confirmed a little while later by relaying how utterly impressed she was with how I was continually offering to help her up. It’s not something I really thought about, but seeing a 80-odd year old woman with failing joints try to stand from sitting on the floor, it was a natural instinct for me to offer assistance. Apparently this chuffed her a great deal, and I was approved of instantly! Yay for me and my chivalrous ways!!! The afternoon tea was interrupted fairly unsubtly by a ‘friend’ of grandma who ‘just popped by for a visit’. Within seconds of entering the room, she dominated the conversation and it was visible on grandma’s face that she was none too happy about not having Satomi and I too herself. She seemed pretty nice, but I had to try hard not to burst out laughing at her disastrously ill-fitting dentures which seemed to want to launch out of her mouth every time she spoke. Apparently I was the only one who noticed it, including herself. All too soon, however, we had to leave and we bade farewell to grandma until next time. And Satomi’s tears fell for the first time of the day.

We headed back into town to get in some last minute omiyage for the folks back home. This was not such an easy feat, however, with Inami being famous for its wood carvings and Australian Customs being anal about not allowing wood products into the country. We persevered however, as Okasan had insisted we purchase something for my Mum from Inami. We found it eventually, in a beautiful 30cm tall bronze statue of a famous monk who had traveled through the region ‘back in the day’. With all of the buying out of the way, it was time to head back home to prepare everything for the departure tonight.

After a quick dinner and shower, I finally got all of my things squared away into my bags. Now, I had a hard-case suitcase (which weighed 24kgs), my shoulder bag (4 kgs) and now a rather large backpack (10kgs). With Jetstar restricting baggage to just one check in bag of no more than 20kgs, and one carry-on bag of no more than 7kgs, I knew I had to do something drastic. I left Mum’s present out and requested Okasan post it the next day, and rearranged some things into Satomi’s bag to lighten the load. Still, I knew we would have to do some swift talking at check in to make sure we weren’t charged the astronomical extra-weight charges.

I also already began to rue my wardrobe decisions. Without access to a shower or change of clothes tomorrow in Osaka, I decided to wear clothes I would be comfortable in while traveling tonight on the bus, and tomorrow night on the plane. It consisted of my new swish dark denim jeans, a t-shirt and over-shirt, thick socks and my boots. Even though it was 8.30 at night, the steamy humidity already had me sweating buckets… and we hadn’t even left yet! My outfit also caused mirth for Okasan who knew that Osaka would be stinking hot tomorrow and that I would be totally uncomfortable walking around in this garb all day. Oh well, I thought, it can’t be that bad. I was wrong… but more about that later.

Before either of us were really ready to leave, we were saying goodbye to Asami and Hiroki, as well as giving one last pat to Nana (and attempting to give a pat to Tane, the cat, who seemed utterly disinterested by our departure… bloody cats) and we were squeezing into Otosan’s cute little van for the hour-long trip to Kanazawa to meet the night bus to Osaka. After a brief tour of the bus station, our chariot arrived and it was time to bid a final farewell. With Satomi fighting back the tears, we quickly headed up the stairs and into our cramped front-row seats on the bus. Within minutes we were away, and Satomi no longer held the tears back. After 33 years of calling Japan home, and of using it as a base for her extensive traveling, she was just beginning the journey which would see her relegating this place as one in which to visit from time to time. While Satomi may not have always seen eye-to-eye with her parents over the years (they certainly didn’t seem to understand her want to live overseas), it seemed that in the past few months they had patched up their differences and turned over a new leaf. Her whole family, but particularly Otosan and Okasan, seem very happy with how Satomi’s life is going and her choice in husband (awe *shucks*) so the departure was a bittersweet beginning to a new chapter in their lives. And sitting their next to her on the bus, holding her hand and watching the tears stream down her face while we pulled out of the station at Kanazawa – it was hard for me not to be wracked with guilt over splitting this wonderfully loving family up. Of course, it’s not that melodramatic and Satomi never felt like that… but, you know.

The trip itself was rather uneventful, as we both drifted off into slumber. Apart from one surreal moment: both of are fairly light sleepers when traveling, and fell in and out of sleep during the night. Each time we woke, we would glimpse out the window to check where we were, and for what seemed like hours, we were sitting neck and neck with this strange green truck. We must have slipped in and out of sleep numerous times over the course of just 10 minutes or so while we were sitting next to this truck at a roadhouse; but in our minds, we had been sleeping for hours while the bus was hurtling along the highway and we were waking every hour or so to see this green truck still next to us! Bizarre.

The morning light shining through the curtains woke us early as we sped through the outer suburbs of this massive, sprawling city. With the crust still deeply set in the corners of our eyes, the bus had traversed the complex web of inner-city expressways and we were disembarking at the edge of the massive Umeda Station. After finding a large enough locker to stow our gear and a quick freshen-up, we headed into the bowls of this gigantic subway hub to try to make sense of the Osaka public transport system and make it get us somewhere to have breakfast. We jumped on the Midosuji Line and settled on Namba Station, a couple of stops away and in the middle of the city proper. We settled into a crisp American-style diner and downed a cooked breaky, coffees and cigarettes while deciding how to fill the next 11 or so hours. At just on 8am, the day was already steamy and I had no inclination to spend the hours traipsing around and working up a fine stink with which to entertain my fellow passengers that evening.

As neither of us had really researched Osaka and the attractions available, we left the diner with still no firm idea of where we were headed or what we were to do. For me, the attraction lay in the city itself – a massive sprawling metropolis which I couldn’t (and still can’t) full comprehend. Nevertheless, I didn’t really want to spend the day aimlessly wandering, so we found a Tourist Bureau which luckily had an English speaking guide. She did the hard sell on this Osaka Unlimited Pass thing, which looked too good to be true… but it wasn’t! Basically, it was a card which got us unlimited travel on the subways and buses for the entire day, plus very cheap or even free entry into about 25 attractions around the city – all for 2000yen (about $18). So, without further ado, we set off for the bus stop and on to our first tourist attraction of the day – the Osaka Human Rights Museum.

Being there just as it opened (yeah, we’re geeks!), we were the only patrons. As such, we were swarmed upon by all of the volunteers and museum workers. Through very broken English, one lass showed me how to use the English audio guide machine thingy, while yet another tried to convince me to pay for a locker for my bag. As we slowly wandered around the place, we were constantly shadowed by at least one of the green-shirted volunteers at all times… in case, you know, you needed help. Or something. Anyway, the museum was interesting enough and even though I missed most of what was going on due to the English audio guide simply giving very brief introductions to the exhibits. It gave an insight into the various human rights issues that have and still are facing the Osaka and Kansai region, as well as Japan as a whole. Issues such as modernity, the fate of the indigenous Ainu people, the treatment of Korean immigrants as well as the fate of lesbians and gays were all canvassed.

After an hour or so of being educated (and enjoying the blissful air-conditioning), we caught the bus back into Umeda for the subway trip out to Osakako and an experience I was strangely very excited about – a tall ship tour of Osaka Bay! The ship, called Santa Maria (just like the song by The Frames… although, I think it was just co-incidental), was a huge red ship that was once powered by sails, but now just a motor. Complete with fake cannons and a statue of Columbus (for that added feel of ‘authenticity’?), it was an absolute blast. Lasting for 50 minutes, it maintained our interest for about 15, before it veered away from the buildings and interesting parts of the bay to give us a close up tour of the working port. Yay! Oh well, inside it was semi air conditioned and the Asahi was cheap, and it certainly was a different way to kill a bit of time, so it wasn’t all bad news.

After the short trip of pretending to be a brave Japanese whaler (for research purposes, you understand?), we grabbed a bite to eat and jumped back on the subway for the trip back to city to start to organize ourselves for the trip home. By this stage in the day, we had walked an amazing distance and my pits were beginning to pong to high heaven. The place was sweltering – think Townsville on a bright January day – which was intermittently broken by freezing, gale force air-conditioning. My heavy outfit felt like I was wearing Arctic-grade fur coats in the tropics, and I was seriously getting over it and was looking forward to the plane just so I could sit down in comfort.

It was not to be, however, as Satomi insisted on dragging me through the massive undercover shopping mall at Shinsaibashi. The place was never bloody ending, as we traversed block upon block of brand name shops. I was utterly not interested in purchasing anything else to add to the weight which was now causing a serious lop-sided droop to my right shoulder, and so we just walked… and walked… and walked.

Fighting the urge to pass out, we eventually got to the nearest station and made our way back to Namba to get out bags, freshen up and start the journey to the airport. Being only 4pm, with the flight leaving at 10pm, we knew we were super early, but what they hey? At least the airport was air-conditioned!

The train trip was as you’d expect from a peak hour Osaka train – packed in like sardines. For about an hour, we hurtled through the massive urban environment of Osaka, squashed in between our bags and the business men on their way home. Before long, though, the crowd thinned out and we were on the bridge connecting the artificial island of Kansai airport to the mainland. After Satomi collected her bag, we did a quick reshuffle before joining the already huge line for check in. Thinking we were being smart and super organized, we arrived at the airport about 3 hours ahead of the scheduled departure… but so, it seemed, did everyone else on the flight! I spent the entire time in the line perfecting the speech I was bound to have to give to avoid the extra weight charges. Finally we were called to the desk and as we placed our bags on the trolley, the combined weight came to 48kg – 8 over the allowed maximum. Just as I was about to launch into my spiel (which included that we were newly engaged and our bags were filled with presents from family and friends… which was only partly untrue), the check-in girl looked up and tut-tutted our excessive baggage and warned us to be more careful next time. What? I had heard horror stories about how budget airlines were anal about weight charges, and yet here we were being given a slap on the wrist??? We were given our boarding passes and waved away, without even a cursory glance or mention of the two huge bags hanging on back (with a combined weight of 10kg!!) Woohoo! We were through and on our way, completely scott free!

With the night kicking in, we pottered around the airport for a bit, getting in some last minute duty-free shopping and some dinner, before heading out to the gate to wait for the flight. After a quick call to Mum and Penny to tell them we were just about to head home, we opened a letter Okasan had written for Satomi and handed her before she left. As Satomi translated it, the tears welled up in her eyes as she said goodbye to Japan. The letter was a sort of manifesto, a set of rules on how to ensure she enjoys a happy and full life. Drawing on all of Okasan’s experience, it detailed what Satomi must do to ensure she fulfills her role in making a happy and loving home for herself and her family. As the sentiments of the letter sunk in, our flight was called and we were on our way.

The flight itself was very rudimentary. We shared a celebratory drink and toasted the beginning of our new life together, scoffed down the awful meal and then settled into the night to sleep the trip away. And I firmly decided one thing – night flights rock! I had been warned that night flights were the worst, with the noise and interruptions ensuring a fitful night sleep. It wasn’t the case with us, however, as we both drifted off fairly early into the trip and didn’t really wake until the sun was coming up over the horizon. And it wasn’t long from then until we hit the tarmac and made our way to the arrivals hall to be greeted by the friendly customs sniffer dog and a rather uneventful and swift processing.

As we got in the cab to head back to Albion, both of us had a huge sinking feeling. On most other trips I had taken, after a couple of weeks I was very much looking forward to being home and enjoying the comforts it offered. Not on this one, however, as the moment we got off the plane, I wanted to be back on it and heading the opposite way back to Japan. The place was still a mysterious magical wonderland to me, filled with interesting and amazing things to discover and marvel at. Before now it was a place only spoken about, but now that I had a concept of it through my own experiences, I understood and appreciated Satomi and her history so much more. I had seen through her the intricacies and norms of Japanese society and family life, and had been wholly welcomed as a family member myself. And, despite the sinking feeling as we left Japan, I was also filled with a joy in knowing that over the next few decades of my life remaining, I would come to know this country and befriend it as a frequent visitor and welcomed distant relative.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Travel Diary - September 1 and 2

Days 11 and 12: Inami

After the madness of the roadtrip, and the impending departure date looming large, the decision to spend some serious time around the rice fields was more the welcomed. Saturday morning saw me waking a little hung-over after the previous night’s festivities, which pretty much goes unchanged in the Nagai household – dinner and a long chat around the table, all the while downing drink upon drink. Amazingly, I hadn’t actually been all that drunk in Japan yet, despite the copious amounts of alcohol being offered around. The thing is, I didn’t feel all that drunk the night before either, but I guess it just all caught up with me at once.

Last night was particularly jovial, though, and was punctuated by a strangely moving (but equally just plain weird) moment between Otosan and I. Before coming to Japan, I had misgivings about how I would react to Satomi’s Dad. Obviously, the tension between Dad and his eldest daughter was something which worried her, and as a result I mainly only heard the bad stories. He was quite clearly a very conservative man, and in a very conservative country; the stories Satomi told me about him not ever cooking or cleaning and always being critical of the food prepared for him… I had no idea how my relatively progressive attitudes would meld with his. He worked hard, though, and provided a loving, caring atmosphere in his home. We hit it off well so far and despite the one monumental cultural slip up, I seemed to be passing all the right tests to become part of the Nagai family. He made it abundantly clear last night that I was more than approved of, with his antics, while soaked in Asahi and sake, tugging on the heart strings.

We had finished dinner and were settling into the night when I decided it was time for my ritualistic “breather” outside. Half way through the cigarette, Otosan appeared beside me, dressed in the bright orange Fretfest promotional t-shirt I had brought for him as an omiyage present. Hopelessly swimming on his thin, wiry frame, the shirt was in no way going to be a staple in his wardrobe – but he did crack it out every now and then just to show that he appreciated the gesture. So, here we were, one of the only times without any translation and we began to talk. We discussed the full moon, the liveliness of the dog, the heat and oppressive humidity (which he didn’t seem to feel) and the height of the rice fields (still about 3 more weeks to go before harvest, apparently)… all of this without either of us understanding a word of what the other was saying. We wandered up and down the driveway for a bit, before he grabbed my hand and shook it vigorously. Standing close, face to face, he uttered a long, heart-felt speech and never once stopped grasping my hand. I looked straight into his glassy eyes and thanked him, before he put both arms around me and hugged me! I naturally hugged him back, but he wasn’t satisfied with just that – and so he proceeded to bear hug me and lift me a good 3 feet off the ground. And this is no mean feat – just a touch shorter than me, the man is nothing but bone and toned, working-man muscle. Still, my fleshy 75kgs would surely having him struggling – but no, he kept me suspended for a good 40 seconds or so, before dropping me and challenging me to do the same to him. My flimsy frame barely put air between the soles of his shoes and the concrete – which provided him much mirth as he playfully pressed my biceps and ridiculed my pitiful muscle tone. Pulling apart, he began a classic macho-man competition and raised his shirt sleeve to show me his rippling arms, before I was thankfully rescued by a rather bemused Satomi. Thank god! I relayed the story to Satomi in a playful way and pretended to be bemused by the evening’s events and Otosan’s drunken behaviour – but deep down, I knew that even with the haze of alcohol, tonight meant a lot between the soon-to-be father-in-law and son-in-law.

We woke to a relatively quiet household on Saturday, with Asami, Okasan and Otosan all at work (Otosan helps out at a couple of local businesses when the rice is busily growing by itself). We eased into the day with a leisurely breakfast before getting ready and heading out to check out the last day of the wood-carving camp (where I also got to eat Anzac bickies!) and for a clothes shopping spree. Buoyed by my recent expedition to the DFO in Brisbane, I had come out of my fashion-buying slumber and was now firmly back on the clothes agenda. The first stop was Uniqlo – a Japanese institution of good quality, but ridiculously cheap clothes. After an hour, I walked out with 2 pairs of jeans, a pair of slacks, a pair of tracksuit pants and 2 t-shirts all for about 18,000 yen (about $160). Chuffed by the experience, we headed over to a department store for yet more spree madness before making our way back home.

The rest of Saturday and into the evening was spent packing all of Satomi’s worldly possessions to be either posted to Australia, or taken with us in a suitcase. I also took possession of a second-hand wheeled suitcase which had been gathering dust in the Nagai attic, to ease with the up-coming traveling extravaganza. Sunday we woke early and prepared a proper Albion fry up feast for breakfast – which went down a treat. Being Asami’s 27th birthday, we hung out around the house and continued to soak up its loving vibes, before getting ready for a special birthday dinner… or so I thought it was a special birthday dinner. As night fell, Satomi’s bags had been collected and were currently on their way to Kansai International Airport, and the imminent departure hung in the air like a cloud. We were ushered into the formal part of the house, where Satomi’s aunty (Otosan’s big sister) was already awaiting us – along with a massive sushi feast! Being ordered in, the platters of sushi and sashimi were a Nagai tradition for signaling a Big Event, and tonight being Asami’s birthday was an event worthy, I thought. It all began a little strangely, however, as Otosan again began a long speech directed at me, which roughly translated to him once again welcoming me to the family. Thanking him (again), I also toasted Asami’s special event – fearing that we were stealing her thunder. I was to be in no doubt as to the real intentions of the evening, though, when I was asked to open the specially-made birthday cake… however, it was no birthday cake – inscribed on the chocolate writing on top in both English and Japanese was: “Congratulations Ben and Satomi”.

It finally sank in now (yeah, I’m a tad slow sometimes) that this was actually a good-bye party for Satomi and I. And as we polished off the last of the 2-litre bottle of Asahi, I once again allowed Otosan to liquor me up with sake and soaked into our last night in Inami for some time.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Travel Diary - August 29 to 31

Day 8, 9 and 10: Inami, Shizuoka, Nagoya, Gifu

There’s nothing like a roadtrip. Something about loud tunes, crappy roadhouse food and travelling at 100km/hr really gets my blood pumping. Despite being a dedicated non-driver, I’ve been doing it for years; ever since I was a kid trapped in the back seat of my parents’ car, fighting with my brother and seeing the Australian country-side whiz by. The experience of seeing the countryside as you zoom past it on the motorway holds so much more romance for me than the stale, cold, low-humidity experience of air travel. And now I’m about to experience it Japanese style, taking in 3 cities on a 3-day whistlestop tour. I feel like a rockstar already… and have the sunnies to prove it!

This mission was to take us on a round trip from Toyama, south-east (ish) to a city called Shizuoka, before looping back on day 2 to Nagoya and then back to Toyama via a place called Gifu. In all, a fairly decent snapshot of Japan encompassing both the tranquility of the countryside and the sheer madness of the huge cities. But we weren’t going anywhere until we effectively squeezed everything into Satomi’s little four-wheel drive.

Sure, we were only going away for 3 days and 2 nights, but you could have been forgiven for thinking we were setting off on a 3-month pilgrimage to Mecca. Japanese custom dictates that when visiting people, you must present them with a gift (they call it omiyage). And since we were visiting a few sets of friends and an uncle, the car resembled a Santa’s sleigh packed to the rafters with boxed confectionary and farm treats. Our personal belongings were crushed meekly underneath our humble offerings.

With the yellow-tinged morning light rapidly giving way to the midday glare, we loaded up the six-stacker CD player with the finest selection from the Albion Music Hall, and gunned it for the highway. Before long we were staring down the barrel of an almost empty expressway, and the first of a long series of the tunnels the Japanese highway system is famous for. The tunnels were one thing, but the great expanse of dense greenery greeting us upon exiting them was something I was not at all prepared for. It’s hard to describe, to paint the word picture befitting the deepness and density of the colour of the Japanese landscape. A uniformity of texture and light provides one with a sense of the impenetrability of this land, and gives one an almost instantaneous respect and admiration for those tasked with overcoming it in order to build the roadways that have come to be the great icons of modernity here. The Japanese are proud of their transportation networks, and so they should be. The smooth, pot-holeless tarmac, pristine roadsides and regular rest stop opportunities are unparalleled in Australia. Before long, however, I was to find out the reason why they were so perfect: tolls.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay on the interconnected expressway system, and had to deviate on to the old highway to make sure we weren’t back-tracking too much. The exits ramps from the expressway are all fairly similar: a long, looping, spiraling roadway, punctuated at the end by a manned toll booth. I had been told some pretty horrific figures about the cost of using the expressways by Steve-O, but didn’t quite believe him. Until now. This relatively short trip (I think about 70-80kms) cost us 2200 yen… about $20! Being used to having a completely free highway system in Australia, I was absolutely appalled and disgusted at the money-grabbing road-building sharks at work in Japan. Until, I guess, Satomi showed me the alternative – the old highway system.

If the expressway is the David Jones or Myer of the Japanese roadway system, then the old highways would definitely be the Crazy Clark’s. Tiny, bumpy, twisty, grotty and generally unkempt, the old highway was a battle – even for me, the non-driver. The tunnels appeared to have not been touched since before the war, and the constant warnings of rock-falls were re-enforced by the appearance of recent landslides across the valley (possibly caused by the recent earthquake). The scenery, though, was quite a spectacle as we skirted around a huge lake and river system which served as the centre piece for a hydro-electricity plant. But sheesh, the bumps and sharp turns had me begging for mercy. Satomi relayed a story about how trips from Toyama to Nagoya (about the same distance from Brisbane to Coffs Harbour) back when she was a kid would be a 2-day affair, with an overnight rest stop mandatory in order for the driver not to go insane and drop the car over a cliff. My bravado and scorn about road trips in Japan being easy due to the pitifully short distances were taken back, as I began to search eagerly for the nearest sign of us re-entering the expressway system. Heck, after just half an hour on this highway, I was prepared to mail a deed of ownership to my first-born child to the “money-grabbing road-building sharks” if only they could ensure the entirety of Japan was covered in their fantastic odes to road transportation.

Thankfully, we were back on the expressway soon enough and rocketing on our way to Shizuoka. A couple of rest stops up the road and we were faced with a very frustrating nose-to-tail traffic jam around the outskirts of Nagoya. The mysterious slowing of traffic cleared as mysteriously as it started, and we were back up to full steam - which in Japan is sign-posted as between 70 and 80 km/hr, even on the expressways (although a distinct lack of highway police – we only saw one cop on the entire trip – meant that the cruising speed jumped to up to 120 at times… but shhh, don’t tell anyone!). As our destination loomed, Satomi chickened out and decided not to attempt the final 20kms or so with low fuel warning light flashing, and so a quick detour for petrol had to be made. A couple of phone calls and text messages made sure Satomi knew where she was going and we paid the remainder of the tolls (turning out to be around $75 for the 400-or-so kilometers) and we delved into the inner-city traffic of Shizuoka. And, for the first time in my life, I was able to say that I had traveled from one side of the country to other! Small milestone, yes, but when you come from Australia and say that you’ve traveled across it, you are granted a respectful awe… it’s a notch that I haven’t as yet been able to put in my belt.

About 180km south-west (ish) of Tokyo, Shizuoka is far removed from what I imagine the zaniness of the huge capital to be. Nestled on the Pacific Ocean, it is regarded as the geographic centre of Japan and home to its most famous natural wonder – Mt Fuji. Excited at the prospect of witnessing the snow-capped wonder, I was more than disappointed with the hazy, overcast conditions on both days we spent there. The haze was so much of a pea-souper that not even the faintest outline of Fuji could be seen. Oh well. Just another reason to come back, I guess. But we did get to witness Shizuoka’s other claim to fame, as being the home of Green Tea. The hillsides surrounding the city are dotted with steep fields teeming with tea leaves and giving it an almost sub-continental feel (I guess mixed with the humidity, one could be forgiven for thinking that we’d actually driven to Sri Lanka).

We weren’t here to check out the scenery, though, we were here to visit some old dear friends of Satomi’s from her college days. The three day trip was killing two birds with the one stone – an introduction for me, and a good bye from Satomi. Our first port of call was to Satomi’s good friend from college Kazuko and her family. As she had recently given birth to her third beautiful child, it was wise of us not to impose too much on the happy little campers – and so we were invited to bunker down for the night with Kazuko’s Mum and Dad, who had become like surrogate parents to Satomi during her college years. We make a quick pit stop at Kazuko’s Mum’s house to dump our belongings and freshen up, before making the quick trek across to town to stop in with the happy family. The fleeting visit was more of a catch up for Satomi, as well as a chance for us to become all clucky as a result of the gorgeous little baby. The visit was punctuated by a brief introduction to Kazuko’s older two girls who, despite being eager to meet a westerner, turned completely shy the minute they stepped from the car and refused to even come near me. I don’t really blame them!

After the first visit out of the way, we wanted to catch some ‘culcha’ and so high tailed it over to the city centre to catch an exhibition by famous Japanese doll-maker Atae Yuki. The dolls were exquisite, made out of a Hessian type material and clad in traditional Japanese clothes in the style of the 1950s. The clothes themselves, mostly kimonos, were hand-made stitch by stitch, and only used fabric from the era depicted. The display was beautiful, showing mostly children set in mischievous poses, but also included an astounding display of a traditional wedding kimono which caught the glint of Satomi’s eye. Pity they are so expensive!

After sumptuous Thai feast that had me missing home (well, missing Thaiways next door), we hit the bed and readied ourselves for the assault of the Nagoya city centre planned for the next day. After the relatively short trip, we arrived in Nagoya proper and set about the next friend meeting of the trip - Tomoko and her two cute little boys. Both boys had been learning English, and so both took the opportunity to practice their skills on me. It was all very cute and cuddly… for about 5 minutes when the boys went back to ‘normal mode’ – which basically entailed the younger one slyly punching or poking the older one to get him to retaliate and then getting in trouble. So reminiscent of my childhood!

After bidding farewell to the hyper boys, we made the quick trip across town into the city centre, searching for our bed for the night. The hotel that we booked was right in the heart of the city and directly across the road from the main shinkansen (bullet train) station. Resisting my inner boy and his urging to “go and have a look at the big, fast trains”, we instead skirted underneath the train lines and into the main shopping district. Dotted in amongst the Channel and Dior shops were something a bit more familiar to me – homeless people. The distinct lack of the homeless in other places we had visited so far hadn’t even occurred to me as something that was missing. I guess the fact that they were not there to be seen everywhere else, and so familiar to me at home that they are almost a part of the visual fabric of my daily life, had jolted me to look around for other “differences” between Japan and Australia. Sure, there are the big, obvious things (you know, like… there’s so many Japanese people here… who’da thunk it?!?!?), but I was more interested in the subtle differences. The things that make Japanese people a culture so unique and intriguing to us big dumb westerners.

There were the superficial things, like the food, the sitting on the floor, the removal of shoes when you go into someone’s home, etc; but there were also other aspects, too. Like the conformity. Walking around Nagoya’s bustling city centre at home time, all I saw was a mass of businessmen and office workers dressed in the standard white, short sleeved business shirt and dark pants (made me feel quite at home, considering it’s my work uniform). The conformity is also played out with their most treasured vehicle of choice – the pushbike. There are no fancy schamncy 15-gear, deep traction, wanker mountain bikes here. Nope, just a good old steel framed, 3-gear no-frills pushie, with little to no modifications added after taking home from the shop. All similar colours, shapes and sizes, I have no idea how you would know which was your bike at the end of the day, especially if you parked it in the underpass under the train lines – it was seriously packed from one end to the other with row upon row of bikes.

The other stark contrasts between our cultures, I found, was the deep politeness. It was politeness to the point of being embarrassing and annoying at times, but certainly polite. Take, for example, the barrage of greetings you get when you walk into, by or near any kind of shop or establishment – “Irashaimase!!!”. It’s basically an informal greeting, but when screeched out at a high pitch and forced out through the nasal passages, especially with the disinterest exhibited after screeching it for the hundredth time of the day – it starts to grate on your nerves. The politeness, though, did manifest itself in a deeply moving way with the irrepressible bow. Unsure of the custom towards bowing, I stuck with the basic Aussie-bush-larrikin-slight-head-tilt-cum-nod for most of my time in Japan. Thinking that I should take my time and ease into the full bow when I felt confident that I was not making a complete dick of myself, I continued my understated nod to all and sundry, and tipped my head to anyone passing on the street who maintained eye contact for even a split second. And so to the homeless man: not realizing it at first, I made the fatal mistake and made eye contact. This he took as a sign of obvious weakness and advanced on me with his hand out and the best hang dog expression he could muster. Realising my mistake, I motioned with the international gestures for “no”, but it didn’t put him off. As he approached closer, I decided to walk away and catch up with Satomi, who had vanished into the throngs as she was mesmerized by Gaultier’s latest retail offerings. A little disheveled, I turned back in the direction of the homeless man to see him following me. Slightly concerned for my welfare (although not sure why), I firmly told him to “fuck off”… a term that he seemed familiar with. Immediately, he dropped his outstretched hand, stood to attention and bent at his waist in a deep, respectful and (I believe) apologetic bow. With me now feeling like a complete prick, he turned and resumed his scavenging and left me in a slight state of shock.

After being jumbled in my thoughts for a bit after the homeless man incident, Satomi and I decided to grab a quick bite to eat (pizza and a salad… both quite nice) before splitting up and both of us having a bit of “me” time. Satomi continued to shop, and I headed back to the hotel to freshen up and check some emails before the events of the evening. Before long we were both freshened up and out the door to pay a visit to Satomi’s uncle. And it was here that I experienced my first (and, alas, only) rock star moment in Japan.

From the moment I stepped into Uncle’s (Ojisan) house, I knew things were going to be a little strange. Firstly, and for the first time in Japan, I was offered “house slippers” to use after taking off my shoes… only to find that my freakishly large clod-hoppers (well, by Japanese standards) has no way of fitting into them. That wasn’t the strangest part, however, as moments after having my feet stared at like the obvious freaks of nature they were, I was greeted by a cacophony of shrieks, screeches and hyperventilating reserved for the likes of The Beatles. It seems Satomi’s younger 2 cousins (both girls) were genuinely very excited about meeting a real life foreigner… a foreigner in their own house, no less! Ohmygawdohmygawdohmygaw OHMYGAAAAWWWDDD!!!! Yep. That’s about how it felt, too, as 2 post teenaged girls worked themselves into a gusset wetting frenzy just by my simple presence. I’ve always had a secret dream to be one of those faint-inducing rockstars and have the world at my beck and call… but if this was anything like what it felt like, then they could keep it to themselves. My usual disposition of being the understated centre of attention shirked and I just became plain understated and tried hard not to make any noises or sudden movements which threatened to elicit the same sort of response. After the initial reaction, however, the evening settled into something a bit more benign and casual. Before long, we were out the door and back to the hotel room for a little r and r.

The next day we woke early with a view to buggin out of Nagoya and on to Gifu pretty soon, but my little boy urges just wouldn’t let go. By 9am, we were standing on the platform at Nagoya station and I was wide eyed and buzzing with excitement as I watched bullet train after bullet train pull in and push out of the station. It was great to finally see them up close, including the cute little rituals the immaculately uniformed drivers performed as they changed shifts. After my little boy was satisfied, we choofed off to the highway and made the relatively short and painless trip to Gifu.

Gifu was the last of the planned introductions on the trip, but my oh my, what an introduction! Satomi had organized to meet three of her old college friends at once over lunch. The plan seemed pretty harmless, until they all arrived with their brood of toddlers. Seriously, I have no idea how these people do it. Every conversation took place while the other person was distracted by removing something from a kids’ mouth, or removing the kids hand from somewhere it shouldn’t have been. While certainly entertaining and fun to watch, I was more eager than ever than ever to get back in the car and have Satomi point it in the general direction of west and get back to the relative sanity of the rice farm and the Nagai family. As the lunch drew to a close and the formalities and pleasantries completed (including the traditional custom of present engaged couples with ornate packages containing money… a custom I am still not entirely comfortable with), we did get my wish and before long we were staring down the sunset and hurling down the highway towards home.

Driving back into the Nagai household driveway was a really weird experience for me. While I only arrived a couple of days ago, the feeling I got when I saw Nana (the dog) jump up in excitement at our return, and Otosan beaming with a huge grin and a wave… I truly felt we were “home”. The Nagai family had been so welcoming and accepting and loving to me that I immediately felt part of the family. It wasn’t something I was keenly aware of when I was first there a few days ago, but driving back in after a couple of days away it truly hit home how much of a part of their lives I had become, and vice versa. It was then that my heart began to sink a little, as I knew that in just a few days from now, I would be leaving this place, leaving them behind, and taking their little girl with me...

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Travel Diary - August 26-28

Days 5, 6 and 7: Inami, Kanazawa, Toyama

The next few days were spent hanging out around the Inami farmhouse. We ran errands to neighbouring cities to sort everything out for Satomi’s imminent departure from Japan, as well as experiencing some of the world-famous Japanese craziness.

Sunday kicked off with the usual cooked breakfast, before sitting down cross legged in the living room with Satomi and Otosan (Dad). The night before, we caused a minor furore by blithely and rather arrogantly (in hindsight) blurting out to the family over dinner that we were getting married, and showing off the ring. While it was no secret at all within the Nagai family what was happening, we totally underestimated Otosan’s conservativeness and traditional leaning. While initially I was quite taken aback by his aggressiveness and the argument that followed, I soon relented and realised that despite the age we lived in, this was still his home, still his country and still his first daughter that we were talking about. We decided to drop the subject that night and revisit it properly the next morning, without the emotional affects of the vast amounts of alcohol we had both consumed.

So here we were, Satomi and I sitting across from Otosan and trying to negotiate our way through this cultural maze. Through tears, Satomi was able to translate my words of love and happiness and my request to have his permission to marry his little girl. A long heartfelt speech followed from Otosan, which roughly translated to a blessing. He granted permission for me to marry Satomi and welcomed me to the Nagai clan with a deep bow and a two-handed, firm hand shake.

With the formalities over with, we set about the day. We made a quick, but all encompassing, tour of Satomi’s Important Places, including her schools and workplaces over the years. Ending up in the cobble-stone streets of the Inami township proper, we scaled the steps to the town’s huge temple – the Inami Betsuin Zuisen-ji Temple, originally built in 1390 before being destroyed by fire (there’s a theme amongst temple fires… ancient Japanese people were pyros, I tell ya) and rebuilt in 1885. It’s huge sloping roof was certainly impressive, but boredom of old buildings was still active, so we decided to climb the slight hill to the festival which Inami is known for world wide (I’m not kidding!) the Inami International Wooden Sculpture Camp 2007. Sure, wood sculptures probably wouldn’t rate too high on my list of cultural activities… but this stuff was impressive. Held every 4 years, the invitation-only camp brings together the world’s best wood sculptors in the one place.

We wandered around, checking out the progress of each artist, before stopping for a long chat with Zambian artist Flinto Chandia. Satomi volunteered as an interpreter during the first couple of days during the camp, being teamed up with Flinto. The brief chat revealed a couple of interesting facts, including that this man is pretty widely known in artistic circles, and is responsible for the pieces of public art on show in the foyers of some or Europe’s biggest banks. The enlightening chat over, the sunburn started to severely kick in, so we hightailed it out of the park and down to the local sports oval for something even more enlightening… the community sports day.

I can’t even begin to explain to you how bizarre this thing is. Almost the entire community turns out for this regular event, which is a mix of school sports carnivals (complete with team colours!) and drunken work Christmas party games (minus the drink). Both Okasan and Otosan were competing in various games, which are hard to describe on paper… but you probably wouldn’t believe me anyway. To give you some idea – the first game involved a team of people running up one at a time to dress their team leader in an array of clothing to basically make him look like a 1940s German housewife. I’m NOT joking.

So anyway, after the 2 most cultural disparate events, we trailed home via the supermarket to get ingredients for the family dinner I was cooking up that evening (the oh-so-Aussie spag bol!). The next two days were very uneventful, running errands around Kanazawa and Toyama cities, as well as spending some quality time around the Nagai house and getting to know the family more – through a round of the ubiquitous card game Uno. As much as we probably should have been sight seeing and doing the tourist thing, we were both very happy to spending time with the family and basically relaxing. Besides, the next 3 days were shaping up to be pretty exhaustive with a road trip to the other side of the country.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Travel Dairy - August 25

Day 4: Inami, Noto, Fuchuno

Today was a big day in the Nagai household, with a huge birthday lunch being planned for Otosan’s 60th. While his birthday was actually in May, the family decided to hold off the celebrations until I arrived, which was sweet. The event was being held at a hotel on the Noto Peninsula, about 2 hours drive away. So we piled into a couple of cars, and picked up Satomi’s grandma and uncle on the way.

The hotel itself was very opulent. Beautiful Japanese water features greeted us throughout the sprawling complex, as we were led into a sort of waiting room to drink tea, have a smoke and a chat. Before long, the lunch room was ready and we were led in. What great me was a table completely full to overflowing of small dishes comprising almost every fish product known to man. After the formalities (speeches, pictures, etc), we got down to some serious eating. From lobster, to crab, to sashimi, to pumpkin tofu, to all manner of pickles, the food varied from “interesting” to just plain delicious. Accompanied by an ever-flowing supply of beer and sake (thanks to Grandma, who was insistent on me getting pissed), the day was thoroughly enjoyed by all. I did, however, slightly offend Otosan by refusing to go to the onsen (steam bath) with him. I had resolved before coming to Japan that onsen were not really my cup of tea: while I consider myself to be fairly open-minded and comfortable enough with my body to be naked, I resolutely decided I did not want to be naked around my father in law. Just not my cup of tea.

Satomi’s grandma was, as they always are, very sweet. A gentle, charming old lady, she was keenly interested in Australian life, and fired question after question at me through Satomi about where I lived, and all manner of details about my life at home. Little did I realize it at the time, but she had presented Satomi with a very large sum of money a couple of weeks back… sort of pre-payment for all of the special moments and events in our lives that she will unfortunately miss out on due to us being in Australia. One feeling I couldn’t shake, and still can’t, is the desire to have Satomi’s grandma, and my grandma, sit in a room for an afternoon and have a natter over endless cups of tea about their respective lives. Both are around the same age, and would have had some interesting comparisons about their experiences. I’m not sure if that would ever be possible, but it would be great to see.

Anyway, we headed back to Inami and settled back to home life. As we sat down for dinner, Satomi and I decided now was the time to officially tell the family of our wedding plans and show them the ring. Unfortunately, Otosan has downed a few beers by this stage and was a little drunk… he did not like or appreciate the way we had gone about this. He wanted to be asked in the traditional way for his permission to marry his daughter. Realising we’d stuffed up, we decided to leave the matter go for the night, and approach it the next morning with soberness. So we headed off to the next little town, Fuchuno, where a cute little hippy festival was on. Much the same as hippy festivals in Aus, it offered a range of homemade novelties and foods, as well as some cool music. Certainly not something I thought I’d see in country Japan.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Travel Diary - 24 August

Day 3: Kyoto to Inami

The day started off well, rose to great in the middle, descended into absurdity, chaos and mayhem (mixed with a fairly liberal sprinkling of extreme discomfort) and ended with pleasantness. Let me explain.

We kicked off with a short bus ride up to Kinkakuji Temple, a huge sprawling Golden Temple built originally in the 1220s as a “holiday home” for the emperor. And while I’m sure it was a great place for him to visit, what, with its walls made of solid gold leaf and all, unfortunately now it has descended into tourist madness. Sure, all of the temples and shrines in Japan probably have an element of the tourist drive behind them, but the others we visited seemed to understate the importance of the yen and focused instead on the cultural significance. Not the Golden Temple. Its gaudy golden fa├žade was only exceeded by the raw push for you to buy something. The path through the beautiful gardens surrounding the temple offered no places to sit and contemplate, and neither did the smatterings of gift shops surrounding. While I did enjoy the experience, it was not what I had hoped for from something so impressive, so we quick-stepped to the bus stop for the short trip down the hill to Ryoanji Temple.

After a quick stop off to wash our hands before meeting god (it’s what you do, apparently) we entered the building and made our way to the western porch to sit and contemplate arguably the world’s most famous dry raked gardens. Despite the tourists dotted around us, the Zen garden was blissfully peaceful and offered us a glimpse into the simple joys and pleasures of the uniformity of the Japanese culture. While deep in contemplation, I decided now was the time and place for the “official proposal”. As I fished the ring from my pocket, I briefly entertained the thought of going down on one knee, but since we were both sitting on our bums, it seemed a bit pointless. Luckily, she said “Yes” and even more luckily the ring fit. So, we excused ourselves from the Zen moment and left the temple more official in the eyes of everyone as an engaged couple. Now it was just a matter of telling or asking the family!

Before that, however, was one of the most harrowing traveling experiences I’ve ever had. While this was my first overseas trip, I do consider myself a seasoned traveler, and have covered the length of Australia many times over. I’ve been faced with floods, heatwaves, severe storms, even the coldest day or record, while in transit and have dealt with it all. I’ve numbed my bum on countless 30-hour bus rides up and down the east coast without experiencing anything more than pleasure. But the train ride from Kyoto to Toyama to make it to Satomi’s house was one of the most awful and has gone down in Ben folklore as a story to tell for some time. And it was by far the worst possible way of preparing for the meeting of the in-laws!

In the spirit of economy, we booked non-reserved seats for the train journey. Which was fine, I thought, as we’d just have to sit anywhere and may not get to sit together. It was not to be, however, as Japan Railways must have decided to base their business model on the Indian Rail network and overbook the entire non-reserved carriages. While we lined up at least 30 minutes in advance, by the time we got onto the carriage, every single seat was taken and we were forced to stand in the cramped doorway, with all of our bags and belongings. What made it worse, was the fact that there was no air-conditioning, and the sun was setting on the same side of the train we were cramped into. After a day of sight-seeing, it was not the most pleasantly smelling place in the world.

My fear mechanism kicked pretty quickly, and I had to focus all of my energy to not going absolutely nuts and scaring the hell out of everyone around me. Unfortunately, poor Satomi wore the brunt of my stress attack and we settled into a 2 hour silent journey from hell. As the stations wore on, the people thinned out, but not in the no smoking section. A couple of seats became available in the smoking carriage, but even as a smoker I couldn’t deal with the stinging eyes and lack of oxygen, so I retreated back to the relative comfort of the doorway.

Thankfully, the journey wasn’t a terribly long one, and before long it was over and I could again relax. Squeezing into Satomi’s cute little 4-wheel-drive, we patched up our previous argument just in time to meet the in-laws. That in itself was not as stressful or uncomfortable as I first feared, with her family immediately welcoming me to their home and their lives. Even with the language difficulties, we managed to bond over a beautiful dinner and great alcohol and chatted into the night.

I also fell deeply in love with Satomi’s home. An old, worn traditional Japanese farm house, it is, for want of a better term, very lived in. It basically comprises of 2 segments, the actual living areas, which are tattered and torn and stocked to the roof with stuff, as well as the formal side, which is pristine and gorgeous and very traditional. Built about the same time as European settlement of Australia, it hadn’t changed much apart from some room additions and cosmetic touch ups. It is a rambling house with curious little nooks and crannies and by no means of any similarity to any western house I’ve been to. Satomi was worried and stressed before I got here, as she felt that I would not like what she sees as dirtiness or messiness. On the contrary, I felt immediately at home and have loved hanging out here. The 4 buildings are bordered on all sides by rice fields, which by this time of the year are long, but not long enough to harvest.

Making me feel even more at home has been Satomi’s family. Okasan (Japanese for Mum) and Otosan (Dad) have been extremely welcoming and loving, and have immediately taken me into the family. While Satomi has been a little frazzled as the only bi-lingual person in the house, we have still managed to have some great conversations and bonding moments over the dinner table. Otosan, a notorious drinker, is also a very easy drunk and tends to err on the side of caution. He has been challenging me drink for drink of beer-u, scotch and sake almost every night we’ve been here, but has had to bow out early in deference to my superior liver. Or something like that. Maybe he just doesn’t want me to make a fool of myself by getting slavishly drunk… who knows?

Travel Diary - 23 August

Day 2: Kyoto.

The morning broke, and I was so happy to be waking up next to my girl. And knowing that I will be doing the same thing for the rest of my life, made me so happy. I know, it sounds soppy and romantic, but there is nothing more special that opening your eyes and seeing the person who means so much to you, laying there next to you. It was made even more special by the fact that it was in her country, and that it followed a period of separation. But enough of the soppy stuff, let’s get on with the day.

Kyoto was Satomi’s choice of place, over Osaka. It’s considered the romantic heart of Japan, and was mercifully sheltered from US bombing during WWII after the intervention of one of the architects of the H-bomb mission, Harry Stimson, due to its “cultural significance”. The results are fascinating, with the old world charm being retained even today, and being witnessed with the tiny, almost impossibly, small streets and alleyways.

We wandered back to Kyoto Station in daylight this time, and were greeted by the sights of tiny little Zen gardens attached to the archetypal Japanese house. The scene would have been totally out of Karate Kid, if not interrupted every 50metres or so by a vending machine. I had been warned about the vending machines, but didn’t realize they permeated this much. Selling mostly cold drinks and cigarettes, the machines are well frequented and are seriously omni-present. But the cute factor does wear off pretty quickly, and they almost fade away into the accepted streetscape.

We targeted a few key areas today for our sight-seeing mission, with the public transport system being cheap and relatively easy to negotiate (albeit, constantly packed). We headed immediately out to Sanjusangen-do, a massive temple built in 1164, but completely refurbished in 1266 after a fire. The huge temple building is about as long as a football field, and inside it boasts 1001 statues of the Buddhist deity. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside. Which is, I suppose, fortunate, as the photo opportunities were vast. After a while, though, the novelty wore off and the gold statues became just “an attraction”. We departed and made our way to Gion – a cute little shopping and restaurant district noted for its intricate and confusing alleyways and home to the traditional heart of the geisha. We even spotted some who could have been true maiko, but there are also a fair smattering of fakes for the tourists. As we sat down to my first Japanese meal, I was greeted by an omelette-like pancake concoction, filled with fishy, slimey, runny, raw things. Not in itself all that disgusting, but very hard to deal with with my limited chop-sticking abilities.

With lunch over, we decided to brave the humidity and head south towards the beautiful Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine, which was established in 711 as a means for bringing luck and fortune to businesses. The shrine itself is unimportant, but behind it is a mass of torii (red arch-type things) which line the path up a hill. There are literally thousands of these things, with the sun shining though giving the path a beautiful glow and a cool respite from the oppressiveness of the humidity. The two digital cameras were working overtime at this point.

After the calm, we headed back to downtown Kyoto for a wander around, before retreating to the air-conditioned hotel to ready ourselves for dinner. Satomi’s grandma had kindly handed her some money before the trip to ensure we went to a proper Japanese restaurant as a welcoming gift from her to me. And what a feast! After wandering around Gion on at night, searching for an authentic Japanese dining experience (plus also trying to catch a glimpse of a geisha scurrying around in the shadows), we settled on a tiny, nondescript doorway of a restaurant called Rumble. Despite the name, we were treated as kings from the moment we stepped inside. Seating ourselves at the bar table, we enjoyed the experience of the chef/cook preparing the 9-course meal. It was an experience I will never forget, and all for the right reasons. While the menu consisted of things that even thinking about them now makes my stomach churn (yes, I did eat sweet-fish innards… and liked it!) it was the “vibe” which truly took the cake. My first proper meal in Japan, and enjoying it in such great company and with the love of my life holding my hand throughout… who could ask for more? If this was the style of Japan, then I never want to leave.