Last Tuesday, I flew the red-eye to Cairns to visit some friends of mine who call this touristy country town home. Back when I was living there in 2007, there seemed to be more Japanese tourists than locals. Official records say they numbered in the thousands. This time around, a casual stroll through Cairns’ famed Esplanade revealed next to none.
There were tourists all right, but they were mostly Chinese. I could tell because as you might recall, I do speak Mandarin as well as Cantonese. I overheard them speaking to each other in the shade of the overgrown palms lining the periphery of the water attractions. I was there with my friends trying to get some respite from the midday sun.
Even without hearing their chatter I could tell they were mainland Chinese because of the way they dressed: long black pants, black sports shoes, loose T shirts. This is what my mother and the other ladies in our neighbourhood in Ipoh wear for their morning walks.
Over the next few days, I discovered that the well-known Japanese shop “Kazaa” selling Japanese knick knacks had since shut its doors to business. When I visited Cairns in 2009, it had shrunk from a double shop with 2 entrances to a single shop with only 1. Now it was missing altogether, another victim of the GFC along with the strong Aussie dollar. It’s become much cheaper for Aussies to holiday in Japan than it is for Japanese to come holiday here.
The year we lived there, His Royal Highness and I made it our goal to sample every single Japanese restaurant in Cairns since, due to restrictions on His Royal Highness’ time, we were not able to take advantage of the direct flights to the land of the rising sun from there. At the time, Cairns had roughly 25. That number has shrunk to slightly less than half.
Happily, I noticed that our favourite Ramen shop “Ganbaranba” is still there. Prices are still what they were in 2009; it is $8.90 for a tonkutsu ramen or $11.90 for my favourite Ikemen. If you go during lunch time, you can get 5 FREE Gyoza as part of the B lunch set.
Having been away for 5 years, Amanda and I were no longer recognised by the owner of the joint. That’s a pity really, because we used to frequent the place at least thrice a week. It was in Ganbaranba that as a 2 year old, Amanda fell in love with noodles and learnt to use chopsticks. His Royal Highness and I were so enamoured by the mustard pickles served in covered containers on each table that we’d empty the container every time.
Around the corner from Ganbaranba was Orchid Plaza. It’s still there, with its many food-court style eateries, jewellery stores, language school and probably the only Japanese grocery store in town, Maruyu, which has a branch down on the Gold Coast. There are other Asian grocers in the city, but they are Korean, reflecting perhaps a change in tourists.
Cairns Central was devoid of Japanese too. There weren’t too many locals there either. Strolling around the mall, I wondered how businesses in there survive. Perhaps a sign of the times, I caught sight of large posters advertising direct flights to Shanghai. I picked up another Oroton bag in Cairns, my highlight of the trip, other than seeing friends of course. It costed much less than what it would in any of the major capital cities or online.
Feeling particularly nostalgic, we went past my old house on Minnie Street, four blocks back from the Esplanade. It’s still there in all its white and green glory, along with the next door neighbour who accosted me for allowing my child to cry in the middle of the night. Townhouses should have concrete between units, I tell you. Don’t ever live in one with plaster-board dividers if you have young children.
We also rounded the Sebel hotel which used to be known by another name. With my parents baby-sitting Amanda, His Royal Highness and I frequented a Japanese restaurant there for my 29th birthday. Not used to it being just the two of us, we sat there wondering what Amanda was up to. From memory, His Royal Highness seemed as relieved as I was when dinner was over.
Cairns suburbs were much the same: quiet, sleepy, almost like any other country town. The weather was beautiful most days, a balmy 20-something degrees. Plenty of sunshine, perhaps 1 shower all week.