This is my account of the holiday of a lifetime that my wife, Val, and I had in Japan over 24 days in August 2001. Our eldest son, Stephen, teaches conversational English in a private Girls High School. He lives in Chiba-ken, in Ichikawa-shi, itself part of the enormous Tokyo conurbation, and has been in Japan for five years. He had previously spent two summer vacations from university in Japan.
Stephen is fluent in spoken Japanese, and gets by pretty well with written Japanese. This is no mean feat, given that there are four different but complementary writing systems.
· Romaji is straightforward, as it uses the Roman alphabet, familiar to English speakers. Station names on Japanese railways include a Romaji version, which is a real help to getting around.
· Hiragana is a curly sort of script where each character stands for a syllable, and in some ways resembles English shorthand notation. It was developed around 1000 years ago by court ladies, who were forbidden to use the kanji system, jealously guarded by the (need you ask? - male) priestly orders.
· Katakana was developed to cope with foreign words and names. It is mainly comprised of straight lines and some of the syllables are straight-line versions of the hiragana.
· Kanji is a nightmare. These are characters adopted from the Chinese 1500 years or so ago. Quite a number have taken on a Japanese life of their own and have come to mean something different from the Chinese. Many kanji characters stand for more than one sound, or more than one word, depending on context.
By the end of our stay, I was proud to say that I could confidently read at least eleven kanji characters (1, 2, 3, 4, Big, Yen, Railway, Ladies (toilet), Gents (toilet), entrance and exit) - although how you pronounce them in Japanese is less certain!
We first mooted the possibility of visiting Japan towards the end of 2000. Val had spent a month there in 1997 with her sister Ann. Val produced an enormous illustrated diary incorporating some of the 700+ photographs they took. (This time we were more modest. We only took c.370 photos - but this was complemented by 7 hours of video footage.) Val always wanted to go back, and I wanted to visit for myself. In this we were egged on by Stephen, who loves Japan and wants to share his Japan with all his friends and family.
Once we decided to go, we sorted out the best time for the trip. To make the trip economical, I wanted to spend more than just two weeks away. Negotiation with my colleagues suggested August as the best time vis-à-vis my job. This coincided with Stephens summer break. The downside of going in August was, however, the climate. August, as Ill willingly testify, is very hot (hardly ever below 30 Celsius) and humid. Boy, did I sweat!
In 2000, Stephen had become engaged to Yasuko, (pronounced Yasko and spelt likewise by some, but Ill stick to the proper spelling), a lovely Japanese girl he first met in the UK while at university. They said in the Spring of 2001 that it would seem appropriate for them to marry while we were in Japan, so the trip took on an extra and exciting dimension for us. Stephen had to embark on a heap of formalities with the British Embassy and so on, and it was not certain that the marriage could be arranged while we were there, but they would try.
Meanwhile, we got down to arranging the trip. The cheapest airfare from the UK to Japan is the Heathrow-Narita flight via Moscow operated by Aeroflot, the Russian airline. We bought two tickets from their office in Piccadilly, London, at £440 each, including airport taxes. Visas are not needed for UK citizens staying in Japan for up to 3 months, so that was one hurdle we didnt need to jump. The flights are twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. To ensure that we got the benefit of a full weekend at the start of our holiday, we arranged to fly on Friday 3rd August. Coming back 3 weeks later would have entailed leaving Tokyo on Friday 24, but by happy coincidence, there was a Bank holiday in Britain on Monday 27 August, so we arranged to return on the evening of that day.
We also purchased two Japan Rail Passes for use within Japan. Over the ensuing period we bought a lot of new clothes, shoes, sandals, and for me a hat to protect me from the sun.
With that and armed with a supply of Yen and Travellers cheques, we were ready.
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