Welcome One and All

by Nancy Bestor

One of the many pleasures of visiting Japan is the opportunity to shop in its delightful department stores and independent shops. If you time your visit to a department store upon its morning opening, you’ll be fortunate enough to experience each and every employee standing at attention at their “station,” and then welcoming you with a bow as you pass by. This lasts but a few minutes after opening, no more than five, but it is truly a fascinating cultural experience like no other.

Equally delightful, however, is shopping in a small independent store, where employees take great pride in their products and service. Whether we were buying a small inexpensive box of chocolates or a handmade scarf, we were treated like royalty, and our purchase was packaged and bagged as though it were a one-of-a-kind, million dollar diamond necklace.

Before our most recent visit to Japan, Bob and I decided we were in the market for new kitchen knives, so we did a little research to find the spot that would best suit our wants needs. Although one can buy high quality Japanese knives in many markets throughout Japan, our research told us that one of the best and least touristy spots is Shigeharu Cutlery in Kyoto. Shigeharu, which has been in business since about 1200, apparently started as a sword making shop. Today they sell just about every size and type of knife imaginable.

Shigeharu wasn’t the easiest place to find. Of course it would have helped if we could read Japanese, but alas there was no “Japanese Knives Sold Here” placard out front to lead the way. Inside the quiet store, we handled a few different knife sizes and styles, until we found the two that suited us best. Perhaps this is what Harry Potter felt like when he was choosing a wand.

English is not spoken at Shigeharu, but with pictures and pointing, we were able to determine which two knives we “needed”, how to care for them, and how much they would cost. While other Japanese knife stores may sell knives made in Japan, Shigeharu knives are made right in the shop where they are sold, by the man selling the knives himself. Our knives are carbon steel, and while they require a bit more care, they will also stay sharp longer than stainless steel knives. Carbon steel does have a propensity to rust, so to keep them in good working order it is essential to dry them very soon after washing, and of course never store them wet.

The shopkeeper also gave us a quick demonstration on sharpening our new knives, and now Bob has regular weekend sharpening sessions in our kitchen. He says he likes it.

Our two knives, plus a sharpening stone, cost $223 and before we left, our friendly shopkeeper\knife maker engraved his name into the blade of the larger knife we purchased. And of course, as we were leaving and thanking him, he bowed to us several times, as did every other retail employee everywhere we shopped.

Shigeharu Cutlery is a great option in Kyoto for Japanese knives, but if you’re not in the knife market, and are traveling to Japan, I suggest you find something else to buy, as the shopping experience really is like no other.

 

 

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Traveled Down the Road and Back Again

by Nancy Bestor

What is the secret to finding good travel companions? Chances are you travel well with your mate and your kids (unless your kids complain a lot when you’re walking in Thailand and it’s hot and humid—but I digress). But what about friends and relatives? Just because you get along on the golf course, at the office, or at Thanksgiving dinner, doesn’t, in my humble opinion, mean that all will be fine when on you’re the road.

I believe the key to good travel companions is finding like-minded folks. Are you the type of traveler who likes to dine at expensive and trendy restaurants? Then you probably don’t want to travel with someone who prefers to eat at hole in the wall spots (aka Bob & I). Do you enjoy walking the entire length of a city and exploring different neighborhoods? Then don’t travel with someone who prefers a hop-on, hop-off bus experience. When you wake up in the morning, do you like to sit in peace and quiet for 30 minutes, enjoying a good cup of coffee and a lovely view? It’s likely then that your ideal travel companion is not the person who starts talking immediately the moment they get out of bed, and is ready and raring to go as soon as they get out of their pajamas.

Bob and I have been fortunate enough to travel with other folks. Now I know that sounds like we don’t enjoy traveling alone together, when indeed we do (right Bob?), but it’s also been very fun to travel with friends and family too. Last fall we took our first-ever tour, a bike trip in Jordan. Eight of us traveled together for eight days. We spent pretty much all day every day together. While we knew four of the people on the tour, only one was a close friend. The other three were Ashland folks who we hadn’t spent too much time with, but, from sharing travel stories, we figured it would work. And it did. (Just look at how much fun we are having in the elevator photo—thank you Sean for the goofy group selfie!) At the end of our adventure, I was sad to say goodbye to everyone and I can honestly say that every single person on that tour is now a friend. In fact, some days I find myself longing to spend quality time with them again.

We also spent two weeks earlier this year in Japan with Bob’s parents. This was our first vacation as a foursome, and although I can’t speak for them, it was indeed an excellent time for us. We enjoyed many great experiences—that mostly revolved around sharing in Japan’s culture and eating delicious food.

Here are a few things I believe make a trip with friends and relatives more enjoyable:

  • Being OK with splitting up to do the things you want to do, without worrying about hurt feelings. In Japan, most days we would spend the morning and early afternoon with Bob’s parents, and then we would head our separate ways for several hours, and connect back up again at dinner time. Some days some of us went back to the hotel and napped while others were out pounding the pavement. Other times some of us visited stores and sites that not everyone was interested in. But then, when we got back together again for dinner, it was fun to share our separate experiences.
  • Recognizing there are times when you just want to have some alone time. One of my traveling friends told me in Jordan that she was going to tour Petra on her own one morning to feed her inner introvert. I loved that phrase. As much as I enjoy being around people, I also really enjoy being on my own. Even if I’m just reading a book or surfing the internet. Everyone needs time to recharge their social batteries.
  • Compromising. This is the trickiest one, because really, who wants to compromise? But maybe one night someone has strong feelings about where they want to eat dinner. Perhaps it’s not your first choice, but being willing to compromise should mean that you’ll get to eat at your spot the next night.
  • Choosing the right kind of trip. One of the things that made our trip to Jordan so fantastic was that we all enjoyed biking, and knew most days would be spent in the saddle. This would not have been the right trip for people who don’t enjoy bike riding. Bob and three of his friends toured India for three weeks a few years ago, and stayed in low to mid range hotels, and ate lots of meals at roadside food stalls. Someone looking for high-end lodging and white tablecloth restaurants would not have been happy on their India trip.

I’d like to think that everyone I know would enjoy a trip with Bob and me. But the truth is, maybe not everyone would find me to be an enjoyable travel companion. And I’m okay with that. Or am I?

 

 

 

 

Don’t Ask Me No Questions

by Nancy Bestor

Bob and I have a habit of getting into interesting conversations with strangers when we are traveling. Sometimes we’re sitting in a bar enjoying a beer and end up chatting with locals and/or tourists sitting near us, hearing their stories, why they’re where they are, and what they do when they’re not traveling or sitting in a bar.

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If you know me, you’ll understand how this happens. I will ask questions as long as you will let me. Truth be told, I’m a nosy person. But there is something weirdly fascinating in learning things about strangers, particularly strangers from other countries. I will very likely never see these folks again, yet I have a crazy urge to know if they are in a relationship, what their job is, how they spend their free time, and more. And what’s equally fascinating is that people are willing to answer my questions. Maybe they’re a little lonely, or perhaps they don’t get the chance to talk about themselves very often. Whatever the reason, I have yet to meet a person unwilling to answer my questions.

Last month, on a trip in Japan, we met a couple at Meiji Jingu Temple in Tokyo. This time, they approached me (really, they did), and asked if I spoke English, and if so, could I answer a couple of questions for them. Of course I was more than willing to answer their questions, but soon enough, I was able to turn the tables and get a few of my own questions answered. It turns out that Yoshihiko is a big fan of American comedy, and one of his favorite shows is Saturday Night Live. In his broken but quite good English, Yoshihiko told us how he loves the skits SNL puts on, particularly the political skits featuring Hillary Clinton and the Donald. This of course led to a conversation about whom we voted for and how we felt about the results. They also wondered if we could explain the Donald’s victory. (Side note: we could not.)

Then we got to talking about Japanese culture. My question to them was why do so many Japanese people wear masks over their noses and mouths? The answer was complicated, they said. At first, people started wearing masks to prevent themselves from getting sick when in public places, especially on crowded trains. But then it turned into something quite different. It became a way to hide their faces. In their own words, wearing a mask is a “strange” cultural phenomenon of Japanese people, but those without masks do not “seem calm.”

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We exchanged emails and upon our return to the US, sent a picture of us with them, and let them know we enjoyed meeting them. They replied, thanking us for our kindness during our conversation. (Not once did they mention that I was nosy.) They also told us that they would like to visit the USA.

And this is why we travel. Not just to see new places, but to meet different people and learn about different cultures. Maybe I am nosy, but I’m not going to stop asking questions. I’m just getting started.

 

Meet Sabrina Markowitz: Artist, Japanophile, Gardener, Cook, and Travel Essentials Employee

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Born and raised on the Big Island of Hawaii, Sabrina grew up surrounded by all things Japanese. She studied the Japanese language for five years and was involved with the Japan Wizards—a competition of Japanese language and culture.

So when Sabrina had the opportunity to visit Japan with a group of her friends while in high school, she was very excited. They traveled through Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo. Kyoto, she explained, was her favorite. She loved the juxtaposition of ancient buildings next to the modern skyscrapers and apartment buildings. Kyoto was filled with modern amenities, right next to ancient temples. Both beautiful in different ways.

Screen Shot 2015-08-04 at 8.39.20 AMWhile in Kyoto, Sabrina and some of her friends decided they wanted to know what it was like to wear a traditional geisha costume, so they went to a special shop where they carefully wrap and paint you in traditional garb and make-up before taking professional photos. The geisha clothing is so restrictive, that the women dressing them continuously asked if they were okay, “daijoubu desu ka?” After slow, careful hours of being bound, wrapped, painted, and adorned, they got to pose for photos.

Tokyo was a different experience for Sabrina. She was enthralled and amused by the vending machine options available to her—“Hard boiled eggs, beer, underwear, ice cream… Mmmmm, green tea ice cream – green tea everything. I had as much of that as possible.” She was not as fond of all the fish in Japanese cuisine, but she managed to get by. Her favorite food on the trip was green Japanese melon bread – it was light, fluffy, delicious and tasted like green melon.

Sabrina finished high school in Hawaii before moving to the Rogue Valley at eighteen to attend Southern Oregon University. She got her Bachelor’s degree in Printmaking – her medium of choice, inspired by her love of Japanese woodblock prints. She even met her boyfriend of five years in a Japanese class, there.

Sabrina is also very fond of insects, and often incorporates them into her art. She likes to wear them, too – jeweled beetle brooches and large, exotic ants encased in resin tied to her wrist. She is captivated by their beauty. She also loves to garden and cook, pickle her own produce, and make jams. She never slows down, and she is currently working on an art show to go up at Weisinger Family Winery next month.

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As for adventures, Sabrina’s thinking she’ll visit Germany next, to go through the Black Forest, and take a wine and bike tour by the Rhine and Mosel Rivers, and over into France. “I dream of finding and purchasing an amazing cuckoo clock and eating rich Black Forest Cake,” she said. “Also, Rieslings are the best.”