On Prices, Garbage, and Other Foolishnesses
This was to have been the year of Pam's and my first ever trip to Europe together. To France, specifically. Pam has never been there. I'm a low-grade Francophile (well, actually I'm a low-grade pretty much anything), who's tried to retain my once pretty good French ever since my last visit, briefly in 1983 . . . just pre-Pam.) I watch France24 on-line, force us to watch the occasional French film and, from time to time, dreamily attempt to think in French. I believe these efforts have worked, that I've retained sufficient French to function with comfortable, if modest success.
We were about to to begin planning the France trip in earnest -- more accurately, this was to have been my trip to plan, and I don't do these sorts of things in earnest, at least not in the kind of earnest that Pam applies to our planning most anything else. For me it's good enough to have flights to and fro', a few hotel reservations, know how to rent a car or grab a train, and we're off. Not quite Pam's style. [Pam: I have no idea what he's talking about.]
And then the Japanese yen began its descent. Our first Japan trip was in November of 2012 -- the yen was at about 80 to the dollar, and the trip had been pricey. Our second trip was in May of 2014, and the yen had slipped to 100 to the dollar. By late last fall the yen was flirting with 120 to the dollar, imports to Japan were becoming pricey, but Japanese exports (think Hondas, etc.) were becoming competitive with their Korean counterparts -- and hotels, rail fares, and Japanese goods were on a 1/3 off sale since our first visit. (I know the Euro has fallen a lot recently, too, but not like this.)
So, Japan it was . . . and I was off the hook for planning! And delighted for more reasons than simply that I'm lazy and shiftless. I've fallen for Japan.
Some of us are old enough to remember when American gas stations seriously advertised service and clean rest rooms. Pam remembers when clean, modern public toilets were not always the case in Japan. We've been going to an amazing supermarket (signage prohibits photography, but here's a sneak peak of their third floor rooftop garden ) that has maybe the cleanest, most elegantly designed restrooms we've ever seen. For example, in the men's room, as you approach the urinal it briefly flushes, in order to wet down the porcelain in order to . . . ? Modern Japan is clean. Little or no litter; close to zero graffiti; almost no evidence of vandalism.
We've already posted a handful of photos of the temporary sculpture installation in the Shirakawa River, just outside the door of our little cottage. Here are a few more. Unprotected, unguarded, sad to say, I doubt such fragile, exposed installations would last a night in most American cities -- easy targets for theft or vandalism.
Smoking? Contrary to seemingly now-dated stereotypes, there's very little public smoking, partially reflected by the absence of cigarette butts on streets and sidewalks. In fact, starting in 2007, Kyoto began designating certain city streets as non-smoking areas, and have since been increasing the number of streets so designated. In a 2010 report, Kyoto Prefecture stated that the major goal of their anti-smoking policies is "to ensure that there is zero chance for people to suffer from second-hand smoke in Kyoto prefecture." The little smoking we've encountered in the many restaurants we go to seems adequately mitigated by excellent ventilation systems when there are smokers present. I don't doubt that some back alley yakitori joints are still very smoky, but many public spaces now seem to be no-smoking zones.
It's quiet. The exhaust systems in cars, buses, trucks, construction equipment and motorcycles all seem to be highly refined. There's almost no horn honking, brake screeching, vroom-vrooming or Harley rumbling. We live in a densely populated neighborhood with 12 or more living units with 25 feet of our walls, and never hear our neighbors' music -- occasionally the murmur of conversation or the purr of a motorscooter from the narrow lane outside our door, but no sharp, loud noises, ever.
It's safe. By reputation, anyway. And we've heard little to the contrary. But, in a back lane in our neighborhood, the following sign suggests all is not quite perfect in paradise -- groping and purse snatching?
Plastic bags and recycling. In a green city (remember the Kyoto Accords?), in a green country where everyone seems to recycle assiduously as a civic responsibility, the retail world overpackages to an extraordinary degree. Even fresh foods often come in a semi-rigid half-shell sealed inside impenetrable plastic bags, then routinely bagged in more plastic at checkout. Here's how we deconstructed the packaging when we bought fresh mochi from the neighborhood sweets shop this morning:
Even well sealed dried foods typically include a sachet of dessicant. Few, if any, shoppers carry their own shopping bags from home. When I decline the inevitably offered extra bag for my already bagged goods, a bit of polite confusion results. Recycling protocols appear to vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction: In Tokyo the categories required a graduate degree in materials science -- really daunting separations, differing days of pickup for the various materials, etc. In Kyoto it seems simpler -- burnables (energy recovery?) go into one bin, glass and plastic bottles and jars, and metal cans into another. In our more-than-a-week in Kyoto almost all of our waste has been paper, multi-layer plastic wrappings, or food residue -- burnables. But the other category, one that I've been hoarding for precisely this moment, are all the "clean" plastic shopping bags that we accumulate, despite the fact that we often decline bags when offered. The photo, representing a mere ten days of hunting and gathering, does not include the many "dirty" bags that go directly into burnable recyling bin.
Fruit, amongst our snacking/breakfast staples, is expensive, not very varied, and not memorably tasty. Now I'm not talking about the US$40 trophy cantaloupe or the six-pack of picture-perfect gift strawberries -- I have no idea what those taste like. I'm talking about the local supermarket or veggie vendor varieties. Approximately one pound of grapes, one to two pounds of bananas, one apple and a kiwi fruit or an orange has been running around $14. Nothing to write home about, taste-wise. In Seattle our vast apple selections, domestic and seasonal or out of cold storage, or imported, are flavorful, distinctively different from one variety to another, and mainly reasonably priced. All of the apples we've tried here have seemed flat. On the other hand, tomatoes (as served as parts of meals in restaurants), shrimp, and most other seafood all seem vastly better than most of what we get at home.