Landing in Japan an overwhelming wave of relief came over me. I loved India and consider it an invaluable experience but Japan promised to be efficient, clean, have running water and perhaps what I was most excited about friends. Spending 6 hours unconscious in Tokyo I boarded a plane early in the morning to Shonai. Shonai airport is 20 minutes from Sakata where Ben, a friend from coaching, lives. Sakata is on the coast of Japan and is a rural town that produces a shit tonne of rice.
Ben met me at Shonai airport with his friend Umetsu Sensei, an incredibly kind woman who has clearly taken a real shine to Ben. Umetsu Sensei drove us back to Sakata and en route took us to a local bakery to buy breakfast. While I picked out 2 items and went to pay Umetsu Sensei filled an enormous basket of bread, croissants, apple strudels, unidentified bread related items, a burger and lemon curd. Seeing my attempt to pay Umetsu Sensei squealed that I was not to pay for anything, she was paying. Ben quickly hinted that any fight against this was useless, so I relented. Delivering us to Ben’s apartment, Umetsu then revealed that all the other food she bought was for Ben and I as well, she was terribly concerned that Ben’s apartment wouldn’t have enough food for two!
Ben’s apartment is very traditionally Japanese – tatami flooring, rice paper walls, futons to sleep on – you get the idea.
My first day in Sakata saw both Ben and me doing a lot of talking – while Ben was happy to be speaking constant English, I was happy to be speaking to someone about something other than where I was from and whether NZ really is that beautiful. Aside from talking we also went down to some of Ben’s local stores… Japan really is everything I hoped for. The first one was called Hard Off, this is a Japanese second hand store however everything in it looks brand new as the Japanese take such good care of their belongings. The store has everything in it from kimonos, to Rolex watches, to game boys, to homewares. Ben and I spent a good 45 minutes looking at everything… With me cackling through the store at all the bizarre shit you can buy. Afterwards we went to the 100 Yen shop. Basically the Japanese equivalent to a $2 store only as they don’t really do complete crap (like we do) there is some great stuff in there – there is also some hysterical items such as disposable underwear (for the business man/woman who doesn’t have time to shower?) or my personal favourite.. Finger condoms…
We also ventured to the supermarket which like all the other stores was filled with mysterious items of various shapes, sizes and textures – with barely anything written in English I spent a lot of time asking Ben what things were (he generally didn’t know). In the evening we went for sushi at Ben’s local sushi joint Kappa Sushi. This was a delicious evening filled with salmon, tuna, squid, miso, frozen mango, noodles and green tea. Seated at a table with a tablet above it Ben showed me that we just picked what we wanted on the tablet and ordered it and it was delivered to our table by either a spaceship or race car…
All the food was delicious and Ben and I stuffed ourselves completely full – I went from having no protein in over a month to overloading on the stuff in one sitting!
Day 2 in Sakata started with me lying in bed relishing just how quiet Japan was, at 8:30am there was no tooting in the streets or people yelling at each other.. The loudest thing was the sound of a bike bell as the kids rode their bikes to school. Ben had to go into work so I was left to my own devices. After going for a run and getting supremely lost (and realising how unfit I was), I enjoyed making breakfast (with eggs that have yolks) and drinking tap water (all novelties after India). Around midday I finally set out on my commuter bike to adventure around Sakata…
The commuter bike is great, with no gears, a basket and the world’s most discrete lock (it’s the round thing around the top of the back wheel) it is the perfect mode of transport for this small and relatively flat town. Yet again my sense of direction let me down and I wound up well away from where I was meant to head and into a suburban area. Finally working out that I had headed in the wrong direction I biked back across the bridges and found the port and the fish market. The fish market was a bit of a disappointment, mainly because it smelt fishy which suggests that the fish isn’t perhaps that fresh. I then found my way to what is a very popular local park/garden. The park was generally quite empty with the occasional old person walking. The park had a few temples/shrine in it which were all rather beautiful – as in India, shrines/temples are everywhere.
The Japanese take a lot of pride in everything they do, so their parks/gardens are beautifully maintained and clean – it makes for a great spot to lie in the shade and read (which conveniently has become a favourite pastime of mine).
After the park I continued on my bike through the town, continually getting very confused by the lack of street signs (and where there were street signs, lack of English street signs) I spent a lot of time consulting my offline map app and going into supermarkets/convenience stores to browse and also try gain my bearings. When I finally worked out which way home was I began the journey home – stopping once when I saw a very beautiful shrine with pieces of paper tied everywhere.
Stopping at the shrine I asked a man what these bits of paper were for… In very broken English he explained to me that they were fortunes/wishes people had brought and tied here to ensure they come true (well at least that’s what I think he said, I could be completely wrong!).
That evening Ben and I cooked dinner together – it was my first home cooked meal since leaving NZ and it was delicious full of vegetables and salmon and NO curry sauce I went to bed very content!
The next day Fi, another friend from coaching arrived to hang out with us. Ben had a regatta so I drove to the airport with Ben’s friend Umetsu Sensei to collect Fi. On arriving at Ben’s apartment to collect me, Umetsu presented me with a gift for Ben and I which was about 1kg of corn bread and a pack of bagels – I think she thinks Ben has no food in his house!
After collecting Fi, Umetsu insisted that en route to Ben’s apartment we stop so she could buy us ice creams. After the ice cream I asked about a picture of some Japanese food that looked like an Indian desert – it was immediately bought for us to try…
These balls were not at all like the Indian desert I had tried… They had the texture of human flesh (well what I imagine it to be like) and were really one of the worst things I have put in my mouth. After one ball I politely told Umetsu that they were not for me and passed the balls off to her son who loves them! Umetsu then proceeded to buy us some strawberries and courgettes before delivering us to Ben’s. The endless gift giving is very hard to keep up with here. The people are so kind and hospitable which is wonderful but even with small gifts from India and NZ it still feels like I am unable to give them back as much as they give to me!
Once Fi was showered and settled we went off for a wee explore and to do some supermarket shopping for Ben while he was coaching. Fi took nearly as much joy as I did touching everything and laughing at the stock of the 100 yen shop! I honestly think I could go to these shops everyday and not get bored! That evening the three of us went to a cocktail bar, it is run by a very old Japanese man who is an award winning cocktail maker despite the fact he has never drunk alcohol before! We sampled everyone of his award winning cocktails and then walked home quite drunk and probably quite loudly for a Japanese town!
Ben’s regatta continued on to Sunday so Fi and I went down to watch him coach and race. The racing here is very different to NZ, every kid is only allowed to race once and the races are only over 1km. This means there is a lot less racing than there is at home. There is also a lot less structure than racing in NZ, there is no age divisions and it is more about giving it a go than anything else!
Ben has to coach in Japanese so listening to him give debrief a was not very informative but it was very impressive listening to how good his Japanese is!
Arriving in time to watch Ben race his single, Fi an I took great pleasure in trying to cheer for Ben in Japanese (Ashi Ben chan = Legs friend Ben). The bizarre race structure meant that Ben was racing a single against a boys quad and boys four…
The tables then turned… Fi and I were then asked if we would race in a Japanese knuckle boat…
Secretly really chuffed at the chance we jumped into the old wooden bath tub with our mixed crew and heavyweight cox and headed down the course ready to race. Despite me catching 2 crabs (how embarrassing) during the race our crew still managed to pull through with a win. When we crossed the finish line anyone would think we had won at the Olympics based on how the men reacted – it was great!!
Despite being a small town, Sakata is a lot of fun. Having friends who I don’t have to get to know is a really nice change and I think Ben is loving being able to speak English all the time! Ben’s friends here are also enormously kind and funny, tonight we are off to dinner with a group of them from rowing so I am sure my crab will be a hot topic of conversation!!