My French Heaven

ALL ABOUT FOOD, FRANCE AND JOIE DE VIVRE

My Japanese Heaven – Part 2 of 4 – Treasures of the Japanese countryside

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Tourists tend to snub Japan (except maybe for the Chinese). Their reasons? A different language, alphabet, driving habits. The atomic pollution… I also think that people have preconceived ideas such as Japanese people looking so serious all the time, the cost of living that’s supposed to be very high, scary driving conditions and intimidating public transportation and signs…

All of this is bullcrap, let me tell you! Of course, I wouldn’t take a swim in the ponds around Fukushima, but for the rest…

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The best thing I did, against EVERYBODY’S advice was renting a car. They all said it wasn’t practical because I wasn’t used to driving on the left side of the road, the signs would all be in Japanese and parking would be a nightmare… Boy am I glad I didn’t listen to them. Besides the somewhat expensive highways, it was the perfect choice and here is why:

  • Japanese people are as polite on the road as they are in life. The driving experience is very relaxing.
  • Maybe it’s because they don’t own as many cars as we do, but traffic is pretty light everywhere.
  • No cops anywhere
  • Even if you’re not used to drive on the left, don’t worry. You’ll hit the curb once or twice and you’ll learn :0)
  • 2000 Kilometers cost less than the train pass would have. Gas is even cheaper than in the US.
  • Parking is extremely easy to find and use, even in the larger cities. Every hotel offers parking.
  • An Ipad with a mobile connection allowed me to go anywhere, anytime and find my way home easily. Just make sure that you bring a power cable. Using Google Maps or Maps will drain the battery really fast.

I truly think that to get to know a place, you need to let yourself get lost in it. Having a car allows you to see and experience things that public transportation simply never could. Even using a town car and a driver cannot provide the same experience. There is also something to be said about this incredible feeling of “danger”. Not knowing the dos and don’ts, not speaking the language, driving a car that isn’t yours in a country that isn’t yours… Even getting gas feels like an adventure!

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As for lodging, I had not made any reservations (wanted to be as free as possible) and was always able to find very good hotel rooms anywhere I was for less than 60€ a night. Food is quite cheap too. You can always have a very good meal (and you guys know how much I eat) for around 20€. Often less.

Now, the very best travel advice I can give you is this: load photos of the things you want to see and do onto your phone as you are preparing for your trip. Wherever you end up, you’ll be able to make yourself understood when it counts and you won’t miss a thing. Want to find a specific temple or castle? show the photo. You want to eat a particular dish? show the photo. You need a hooker for the night? Show a photo! (just kidding! You know I’d never do that…)

Here are a few pictures of mount Fuji (taken from the lake region) + the mountain villages West of Fuji and the wild monkeys I found swimming in the lakes near Nagano. The lady in the green dress is the owner of the best tempura restaurant on earth. I ate every meal at her place during the three days I stayed in the lake district near Fuji. The guys in the black and white picture are fellow photographers (locals) that I met at 5:30am one morning after it had snowed all night on Fuji. I couldn’t understand them and they could not understand me, but they offered me a cup of hot tea and I used the pics on my phone to make them understand I was from Bordeaux. I could write about this encounter for ever, but all you have to know is that it was probably one of the most beautiful human experiences I have ever had… 4 guys, 1 passion, 1 mountain, a cigarette and some tea… Heaven!

Next Monday, Part 3/4: Kyoto

My Japanese Heaven – Part 1 of 4 – Welcome to Tokyo!

I’m going to be completely off topic here, but I hope you won’t mind My French Heaven becoming Japanese for a few posts…

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My birthday present this year was a two week vacation in Japan to visit my niece and her husband who live in Tokyo. What a trip that was. I chose to go at the end of November as I wanted to witness the leaves turning colors. What a good call that was! A photographer’s heaven…

There are so many things about that trip that I want to share with you, that I have decided to write 4 posts about it:

  1. Part 1: Tokyo and my impressions of Japan and the Japanese people
  2. Part 2: The countryside and a few travel tips
  3. Part 3: The gardens and temples of Kyoto
  4. Part 4: Sushi heaven and the Tsukiji fish market, style and craftsmanship

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My Japanese Heaven – Part 1/4 – Tokyo and first impressions

Japan is such an iconic country and its culture so well known and admired around the world, that one cannot help landing there with tons of preconceived ideas about the place. I must say that did find everything I expected to find there from the temples to the old ladies in kimonos and great sushi. But I got so much more from this incredible journey. I knew the Japanese people to be very disciplined and serious for instance, but what I didn’t expect was for them to be so kind and friendly. So welcoming and delightful and every way. I also expected everyone to bow and smile and giggle. I was actually shocked to realize that all this actually came from the heart… Not one once of passive aggressive behavior here. What you see is truly what you get! What a noble people the Japanese are!

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Here are a few things about the Japanese culture that I found most remarkable:

  • Traditions are very important. People show great respect at all times, especially for their elders. Young people and old people still wear kimonos. Especially on weekends.
  • Everyone is extremely polite and disciplined. Lines form everywhere, even to cross the street.
  • Most people seem very serious (like VERY serious) and quite formal, but they are just focused on the task at hand and will smile at you as soon as you address them. To me, one word says it all about Japanese people: KINDNESS
  • They always think of the other person first. For instance, a lot of people wear surgical masks. I thought at first that they wanted to protect themselves from pollution, but they wear them mostly when they have a cold because they don’t want to infect other people.
  • Bow + give a genuine smile + say hello. Then ask your question. Remember, politeness and genuine care first!
  • You eat the best sushi in restaurants that ONLY serve sushi. The chef, usually the owner, will only serve the very best. This means that any ingredient that isn’t up to par that day will not be used. This depends on what is or isn’t available at the market that day. You will eat 10 to 15 pieces and they will be served one by one. But more about my sushi experience in part 4.
  • Japan is extremely safe. No crime whatsoever it seems. I’m told that the mafia takes care of petty thieves. The police seems to focus mostly on traffic. Over the course of my 2 week stay, I drove more than 2000 Km and only saw 1 police car on the highway. Not one cop in sight in the city except for a few traffic attendants here and there.
  • If cleanliness is next to godliness, they’re all so close to God they can touch the guy’s beard!
  • Japanese people LOVE their dogs and truly consider them as their children. They are the best groomed pets I have ever seen!
  • A lot of people seem very shy. They never say no. They’ll find a way to make you understand that they don’t agree with something, but always through subtle body language. It’s your job to read between the lines.

OK, enough bla bla. Here is the first batch of photos:

Lessons learned: A year in My French Heaven

These days, you just need to press enter on your keyboard and Facebook will compile all of your pictures to create a little presentation of the past year in your life. While I think that’s quite a practical little trick, I will try to do it the old fashion way, praying that the result won’t bore you to death. Here is a year in My French Heaven and some of the lessons I’ve learned along the way:

FEBRUARY: Melanie J. had hired me for 12 Foodie Days in June of 2013. She wanted to come back to Bordeaux that fall to spend more time with me but couldn’t make the trip. So she invited me to spend two weeks with her in Miami instead. I hadn’t been back in the States for almost a decade and had been dreaming of a proper rack of baby back ribs since January 2005. We had some fabulous dinner parties for Melanie’s friends and I cooked what I still believe was the finest coq au vin I had ever made… Lessons learned: my guests tend to become dear friends and then I feel bad about charging them when they come to Bordeaux. Not a good business strategy! From now on, I will treat my guests as poorly as possible. (just joking of course! Please come visit me!!) Another important thing I was reminded of: life without ribs isn’t worth living! Oh, and Art Deco rules!

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APRIL: another one I couldn’t resist becoming friends with is Mimi (Chef Mimi’s Blog) who purchased several Foodie Days for herself and her lovely daughter Emma. We had the best of times. All we did was sight seeing and eat for 5 days. Emma doesn’t eat meat, so it was a great opportunity for me to get out of my comfort zone and come up with new seafood recipes. Mimi is a great epicurean. Watching her eat cheese on warm baguette with her eyes closed was one of the highlights of my year! I’m being serious! Lessons learned: ladies who eat cheese and real bread with their eyes closed are special!

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MAY, JUNE, JULY, AUGUST and SEPTEMBER: I had so many guests over the Summer that I even “had to” stop blogging. Yes, I know, I’m making excuses… Anyhow, from fellow bloggers like Conor and his lovely wife to Jennifer to hard core Foodies like Carl J. and Gregg M. to my dear friends Diane, Caroline, Elizabeth, Patty and their respective Michaels and of course Dany (who had to drive all the way from Barcelona just to show off his new Porsche) it has been a never ending farandole of the most fantastic people you could ever meet. Lessons learned: in business, people say you should find your niche. In life, I say you should find your tribe! I have finally found mine and they all love to eat and drink and be merry :-)

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OCTOBER, NOVEMBER: I took some time to travel and reconnect with loved ones. First I went to Brittany to visit my nephew François. I had never been to that part of France before. What a mistake! I first visited Mont Saint-Michel in the lower part of Normandy then drove down to the Quimper area where François lives. I ate crêpes and galettes for breakfast, lunch and dinner and came home with an extra 5 pounds… The second trip was to Japan to visit François’ sister Alice, her husband and my two adorable grand-nieces. The trip to Japan was my birthday present this year. It was a life changing experience for me. First time in Asia. Tokyo, Fuji, Nagano, Kyoto… Absolutely breathtaking in every way. I will soon post about these two trips in more detail! You see, I was living in the states for the whole decade when François and Alice were teenagers. When I moved back to France, it was their turn to move away to college, so we never had a chance to really get to know each other. Now it’s done and these “new” relationships are what I am most thankful for this year! Lessons learned: don’t wait for people to come to you. Go to them. It is never too late to get to know someone you love and show that you really really care about them. Note: I will let you guess which of the following pictures below are of Brittany and which are of Japan :-)

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DECEMBER: a new website for my Foodie Days that I hope you’ll enjoy (will be up and linked on Monday) and of course Christmas. I have spent quite a bit of money this year. Mostly on Charlotte who begged me for a new clutch, but also on a computer and the camera of my dreams. Travel isn’t cheap either and my philosophy is that cheap travel is OK, but great travel isn’t cheap… So, come Christmas, I must say that I didn’t have much money left for presents. The “problem” is that I am a Christmas freak and I HAVE TO give a present to each and every family member. So I decided to frame some of the family pictures I had taken this year and use that. It was a big success. Lessons learned: never run out of empty wooden frames :-)

That’s it for now. I wish you all (all y’all, as they say in the South) the very best for 2015 and I thank you so much for your continued support and friendship. I love you guys very much. Very much indeed!

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