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Note: This would’ve been a literary blog if I’d read some Haruki Murakami or ordered a manga boxed set from Amazon before going to Japan.

Nonetheless, Japan is a delightful country, clean and tidy, with warm and generous people who are polite beyond compare. Recently, four of us first traveled to the northern island of Hokkaido, to ski the fluffiest and deepest powder in the world. But climate change knows no boundaries, and snow conditions ran the gamut: peanut butter, ice, wind-blown cement, slush, and for two lovely days, powder. Our aim, with help from Mattias, our guide, was to ski the backcountry, where there are no lifts. We used skins stuck to the bottom of our skis to hike up. Then we’d rip them off, roll them up, stuff them in our backpacks, and ski down. You may say, But why?

Thank goodness for Mattias, not just because he got us down the mountains safely. He coached us on all things Japanese—manners, food, traditions—reminding us more than once that wasabi and soy sauce are never mixed; chopsticks are not to be left stabbed vertically into a bowl of ramen; and shoes should be taken off at the door. Not only that, Mattias let me take a photo of him pretend-reading a page from my book, Trapped, on a ridge below Mt. Furano in Daisetsuza National Park. All independent authors desperate to sell their books make requests like this. Which makes me think this might qualify as a literary blog.

Hokkaido, with its spectacular mountains, fisheries, and rural character, was our training

ground. However, in a week’s time, we left the security of Mattias and his van to strike out on our own in Tokyo and Kyoto. No rustic ambience here. Japanese cities are chaotic, but in an organized way. What’s nice is, citizens actually follow the rules, a refreshing change from the disorganized chaos of the U.S.

Overall, here are a few things I think you should know about Japan:

--7-11. Our first stop each day before skiing. Stores are clean, bathrooms are clean, coffee is excellent, the ATM in the corner is full of yen, and shelves bulge with many portable food items. Onigiri, a pocket-sized triangle of rice with fish and nori (dried seaweed) is great nourishment, especially on the ski trail. As for me, I’d buy a couple packs of a pancake sandwich that’s held together with margarine and maple syrup. Breakfast all day long. I asked Mattias what these were called in Japanese, and he said, “Pancakes.” Sometimes I overthink.

--Litter. There is none. People take their trash home with them. The streets are spotless.

--Ramen. Not your Maruchen Instant Lunch in a Styrofoam cup. Traditional ramen, made of wheat noodles and miso or soy broth topped with an egg or meat or vegetables, is king. Portions are huge, and when you’re done with the noodle part, it’s okay to pick up your bowl and slurp down the broth.

--Bidets. The Japanese are way ahead of us on this. They’re a great way to clean up without knocking down trees destined for toilet paper. Plus, some bidets have a special button you can press that elicits a pleasant gurgling water sound to mask any noisy task you may have to perform.

--Hello Kitty? The white cat with the red bow? She’s Japan’s ambassador of tourism, representing a uniquely Japanese cuteness trend. Anthropomorphism to the max. Adorable little animal mascots and characters abound. I think of them as playful reminders to not take life too seriously. One day on the streets of Tokyo, a blue bear inhabited by a real person waved to me.

--Fish, Raw! It took me a while to distinguish my sushis from my sashimis from my nigiris. But I grew to appreciate the simplicity and flavor of a solo strip of deep red ahi tuna served sashimi-style, without rice or extra ingredients. No wonder the Japanese are so healthy! Except, I can’t help mentioning that in the 1500s, Portugese Roman Catholic missionaries introduced the concept of fried food (and thus high cholesterol, I surmise) to the Japanese. Today, chicken and pork katsu (fried) and tempura are popular all over. Catholicism not so much.


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