Distinctly Japanese

Japanese sunset at Fushimi during our
Jyukkoku boat ride tour
People traditionally think of Japan as the Land of the Rising Sun or Cherry Blossom Land but recently while I was travelling around Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto, I only caught sight of the setting sun one evening.  While it’s not yet cherry blossom season, I still enjoyed seeing a beautiful palette of autumn shades in reds, orange and yellows against a green backdrop.  

My earliest connection with anything Japanese must have been my pair of Japanese slippers.  These were common rubber slippers or flip-flops made with a white base and blue thongs that I used to wear around the house when I was a kid.  When the threads on its soles wear out, the slippers can be ever so slippery on wet floors and I remember falling clumsily (and painfully!) because there was no grip from my old pair of Japanese slippers.

Beautiful autumn colours at the grounds of Kinkaku-ji
or Temple of the Golden Pavillion
In the early days of Black & White television, my brother and I used to watch a popular Japanese TV series, Ultra Man.  The dialog was dubbed in Malay and I remember being irritated because the mouths of the actors were never in sync with the words.  But we still enjoyed watching the superhero, Ultra Man being summoned (a light will flash in his chest!) to fight those horrific monsters.  In every episode, there will be some horned, fire-breathing, plastic-looking dinosaur or gigantic creature – generally called a raksaksa (Malay word for ogre or giant!) – that will inevitably be defeated by Ultra Man.  Monsters are always destroyed, not just by Ultra Man’s powerful punches and karate chops but also by the super powers that will radiate from his crossed forearms!  If you are smiling now, you know exactly what I mean.  But in our young minds, this was the heady stuff that superheroes are made of.

Ultra Man collectibles in the showcase - Don't miss
the part of the model of a raksaksa at far right!
The final stop of our itinerary in Osaka, before we headed to the airport for our return flight, was Rinku Premium Outlets [same brand as our Johor Premium Outlets!] in Rinku City.  In the short trek from the railway station to the mall, I passed a McDonald’s and my attention was caught by a showcase that displayed Ultra Man collectibles, complete with figurines of raksaksa monsters!  I’m just fascinated that Ultra Man is still very much alive and being enjoyed by the current generation of youngsters.  This certainly brought back a flood of memories of how my brother and I used to enjoy watching Ultra Man on TV!

Young men wearing kimono on the
street to Kiyomizu-dera Temple
Another early Japanese influence must be from “The Samurai” TV series that was also dubbed in Malay.  I cannot forget how he was hero-worshipped by a youngster who often chased after him yelling repeatedly, “Shintaro!  Shintaro!”  I remember watching with fascination, how this kimono-clad master swordsman could defeat armies of ninja antagonists, without breaking a sweat or messing up his neat costume.  Those black-clad, fleet-footed ninja warriors can rain a series of darts at Shintaro but with his swift reflexes, he can nimbly escape being a target.  I can still picture his stealthy look wearing a dark kimono with a top-knot pony tail and how he sometimes wore a large straw hat.  Sadly in the few days I was in Japan, I did not see any Shintaro look-alike and the only kimono-clad men I came across were several school boys, probably on a field trip to the shrines. 

In school, I was introduced to a popular Japanese brand that I’m still using to this day.  My friends know that I don’t leave home without it because since receiving free samples of it in school, I have trusted this product to ease any itch caused by insect bites.  If you guessed Mopiko, you’re right!  Since I’m a favourite target of hungry mosquitoes, I keep a tube in my bag so that each time I get a bite, Mopiko can always come to my rescue!

The iconic Glico Man in dazzling neon lights among
others at the Shinsai Bashi-Suji shopping area
During our schooldays, Glico Pocky was a popular snack.  These pretzel sticks coated with chocolate were a coveted item among other favourite snacks like Smarties chocolate buttons and Mentos mints.  I can still remember one of the clever TV ads that featured cute Japanese girls with good teeth and bright eyes, holding the uncoated end of the pretzels and chewing into the crispy chocolate-coated Pocky sticks while they winked and exclaimed, “Pocky!”  You will agree that something like this is quite unforgettable.  And then one cool night in Osaka, when we stopped at the Shinsai Bashi-Suji shopping area to look at the dazzling neon lights, I saw a giant-size billboard of the Glico Man emblazoned in neon lights and fond memories of the Pocky Japanese snacks came rushing back.
The Green Tea Kit Kat presented by Matsumoto-san
One evening, after an especially eventful day, we finally arrived at our hotel for the night.  While we were in the lobby waiting to check-in, I was pleasantly surprised when Matsumoto-san, host representative from New Kansai International Airport, presented each one of us with a Green Tea Kit Kat.  After such a taxing day, a kind gesture like this simply sweetened my day!  I was among four other media representative from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia who incidentally, will each share our Japanese experiences in Thai, Indonesian, Mandarin languages – while I will write in English.

Delicious Green Tea Cake [Left] on welcome tray!
Matcha or Green Tea is distinctly Japanese and I’m glad that Green Tea is one of their Kit Kat flavours.  I must confess that when I closed the door to my hotel room, I dropped my stuff and started to take photos of the Kit Kat box!  On its reverse side, the box even has a gift tag with “To and From” printed around a space left blank for you to write a message.  I later learnt that there are 15 flavours in a limited edition pack but with such an eventful itinerary, I didn’t get around to buying any varieties so this only means that I must return to Japan to sample more Kit Kat!
Japanese Green Tea Ice-Cream!
I prefer green tea as a beverage but in Japan, green tea ice-cream is very common and I discovered that I can also appreciate green tea in a delicious soft cake packed as a hotel premium item.  I found two pieces of green tea cake on a welcome tray, presented with a pot of tea [sachet of Earl Grey Tea alongside!] complete with a posy of real flowers – blossoms of rose, hydrangea and orchids – in a low crystal vase!  It was a nice gesture and I did not hesitate to taste the green tea cake and before I knew it, I have finished all of the two pieces!

I find the distinctly Japanese custom in bowing and greeting both courteous and charming.  I’m impressed that even hotel staff, who obviously do not speak English, will greet me with a pleasant Ohaiyo Gozaimasu when we meet in the corridor or lobby.  After the first day, I started to adopt their habit of bowing low from the waist each time we thanked the hosts or left an establishment.  I know that this can’t be wrong because they only reciprocated with more bows!

A group of Japanese girls we met in USJ posing for us!
Two things I discovered about Japanese young people: One is their passion for cosplay (short-form of “costume playing”) i.e. dressing up in outlandish costumes with outrageous hair-dos to look like anime or manga characters and the other is their automatic reflex to put up two fingers in a peace sign whenever they pose for a photo!  Their “auto-photo-reflex” became so apparent that we curiously asked our Japanese friends about it but they don’t have any logical explanation.  At all the tourist spots and particularly in Universal Studios Japan (USJ), there was plenty of photo-taking and everyone invariably made some hand sign while most perpetually had two fingers up with every cute smile and animated pose!

The Japanese are not only friendly and courteous but also very animated in their expressions.  This was especially apparent in USJ because here’s where fun is a serious business.  The animated excitement around us was so terribly infectious that it was not long before I was swept along into a carefree and crazy mood. 

Caught on camera with Hello Kitty in our warm embrace!
I was particularly keen to experience USJ because I wanted to see the similarities and differences between USJ and Universal Studios Singapore.  I was thrilled to discover that one of the animated characters in USJ was Hello Kitty – a familiar friend to me because Sanrio Hello Kitty Town is opened in the Puteri Harbour Family Theme Park, Johor Baru – the first to be established outside of Japan!

Having met Hello Kitty and Dear Daniel in Sanrio Hello Kitty Town, it was like going to meet an old friend in USJ.  By then everyone was hyped up with excitement and when the team in the Hello Kitty attraction gave me a warm welcome, I responded with equal enthusiasm.  In the final part of the Hello Kitty’s Ribbon Collection walk-through, the door opened to the photo studio where I finally met Hello Kitty again.  It was rather dramatic because when I rushed towards her, we fell into an emotional embrace, greeting each other warmly like long-lost friends …

Friends [Left to Right], Ann [Thai], yours truly, Japanese comedy character, Suang [Malaysian Chinese]
 and Sika [Indonesian], outside the Namba Grand Kagetsu Theatre, Osaka

This is just a glimpse of all that’s distinctly Japanese but there’s much more that’s both familiar and so uniquely Japanese to share in separate posts.  From train rides, boat cruises, tower views, mountain ropeway and cable-car rides, shopping malls, heritage attractions to the fresh fish market and elegant Japanese meals, among other interesting things.  And when it was time to leave Japan, my friends and I agreed that the one thing we will miss most about Japan must be their clean, dry and oh so comfortable toilets!  


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