Sunday, 31 October 2010

Onsen and Okonomiyaki

The things that challenge research scientists are sometimes nothing to do with the lab. This week I've had the privilege of being in Japan (near Osaka) for the week to attend a small conference - or workshop - with experts in my specific field.

I'd have to say I love the opportunities to travel that come with being part of an international research field - in fact, this is my second trip to Japan this year. But it's not all fun and games. In Japan, manners and etiquette are crucial, especially for women. Of course, most of us are aware of this before we arrive but can sometimes be presented with situations which are a kind of clash-of-cultures.

Just going for lunch brings us the dilemma of how to choose a table. Around this area the restaurants are mostly the front room of a persons house. Do we sit cross-legged at a Japanese style table or on stools or chairs at the bar? For me this week I've had no choice, I managed to ruin my knee on the flight over so physically can't sit on the floor. Unfortunately this has lead to a lot of hand-waving explanations as to why I have to sit on a chair. Then of course we have to find a Japanese colleague to explain the menu options to us. Lunch takes about an hour or more, but of course the food is fabulous. I particularly enjoyed the local speciality of Okonomiyaki. I'm told it's a Japanese version of pizza but really its like a very flavoursome pancake or omlette with ingredients of your choice and lots of sauces with it.

Okonomiyaki - or 'japanese pizza'. A speciality around Osaka.

Other things to remember (often not easy while completely jet-lagged) are when it is appropriate to wear shoes and when to wear slippers. When to take off the slippers. Not blowing your nose in front of other people, covering your mouth when laughing (mostly for women), bringing a gift for the host, not pointing your chopsticks or leaving them upright in your meal (this means death), not pouring your own drink and then (for women, again) pouring it using both hands... the list is quite long, trust me!

Thankfully I'm familiar with most of these and it comes fairly naturally to me now, but I've certainly seen colleagues or friends make more than a few blunders. Even people who have been here many times can lapse back to their 'normal' etiquette without thinking about it.

Which brings me to the question of when it is appropriate to get naked with your colleagues. It'd be a fair bet that in most countries the answer is "never". So it was quite a challenge to western sensibilities to have our banquet last night at a venue with an Onsen - or hot spring. This one was particularly nice as it was outdoors in the mountains, though thankfully men and women were separated. There were only a small handful of women at this workshop and I think all of us (apart from one) went in - although only two of us were not Japanese. I only wish we were less prudish in the 'west' as it was a lovely kind-of 'back to nature' experience being outdoor in the night bathing in water from a naturally hot spring. My only warning to people with pale skin is that you will come out looking decidedly similar to a lobster. All part of the fun.

The rest of the evening was an absolute blast, with a huge multi-course feast including abalone and some very expensive mushrooms. The beer and sake flowed freely and I think we all enjoyed ourselves. This morning (yes, it's Sunday) we're back to the workshop for concluding remarks and summaries and then we're off back home. Or in my case - shopping for a day, then home.

View of a temple rock garden in Kouyasan (taken in black and white with red highlight).

No comments:

Post a Comment