We left Japan yesterday around 4pm and arrived, still Monday, in San Francisco around 11am. Even if we had found a direct flight from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, I don’t think we would have taken it, especially since it is really great that we can have a little bit of time at home to repack. On the list of things to do: pack fleece jackets, buy new travel towels (after several washings in a row we’ve come to the conclusion that their lifetime is over and that they aren’t dirty, they just smell bad), buy REAL water purification drops, pick up our new Acer Aspireone so that Matt doesn’t have to lug around and protect our larger laptop plus pelican case, see Joylani’s mom (who happens to also have a day layover in SF), aunt, uncle, and cousins along with Matt’s parents and meet his grandparents for dinner. Also: restock on granola bars (essential for long flights and layovers), transfer all data to new computer, wash clothes, and try to get a good night’s sleep. Somehow, miraculously, and thanks to the help of our parents, we were able to accomplish everything except for the part about getting a good night’s sleep. It was good sleep, but there were only about three hours of it. Poor Matt had a little bit more work to do than he figured for setting up the new laptop, and repacking was slow going for me, especially since I pooped out just before dinner, despite having several more hours of work to do. On the bright side, it was fun to have a quick visit with our families and helpful to switch out some of our gear. I must admit, though, that it was a bit of a teaser to be home again only to have leave tomorrow morning. However, we both don’t feel quite “ready” (whatever that means) to come back just yet. So a few more months on the road it is. South America—here we come!
Although we can divide our trip thus far into roughly four parts (Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and East Asia), we’ve spent the vast majority of our time in Asia. We’ve had the time of our lives and I think everyone should visit Asia (if not travel it extensively). It truly has something to offer everyone, so I’ve made the following guide and tribute to the great continent.
India: just show up and something exciting WILL happen
Maldives: go sailing and snorkeling on remote atolls
Nepal: go trekking
Thailand: explore the entire country
Laos: travel and live on the Mekong
Cambodia: yes its cliche, but you HAVE to explore Angkor
Malaysia: take in the diverse cultures and food
Brunei: meet characters at the Pusat Belia (not pictured)
Singapore: visit the Botanical Gardens
China: meet the friendliest people on earth
Korea: go to a baseball game
Japan: once again, EAT! (especially the seafood )
Japan is not adventurous, crazy, or cheap like many of the countries I love. But it is different and there’s a ton of things I really like about it, making it one of my favorite countries. Perhaps my opinion is also partly skewed by the fact that we stayed with family and friends the entire time and got a clearer perspective of the country. Also, my paternal ancestors are from here, so maybe that connection has some pull.
The highlights of the trip were definitely seeing Josh, the Evanston/Mizuta, and Nagano/Tosu families. They not only gave us places to stay, but took us around, treated us to tons of excellent food, and showed us true Japanese hospitality. Then there’s the food. I think Japanese food is the best in the world and I realized I’ve only been exposed to a fraction of it in the US. One of my favorite things to do has been to go to convenience store or supermarket and buy lunch. Fresh sashimi, nigiri, or maki is always on offer and cheap. Like Chinese and Koreans, Japanese love beer. Can’t argue with that. Beyond the food, people are so kind and polite here (also a staple of East Asian nations). People just seem to be generally more considerate in this part of Asia (and the world) and Japan is an extreme. Extreme politeness, helpfulness, and kindness. I like that things work here too. Things are futuristic and everything from transportation to daily conveniences are efficient and effective. As an American, I don’t visit too many places with a higher standard of living than home, so Japan was interesting in this way. Lastly, I also liked the landscape, with all the greenery and mountains. Some parts of Kyushu reminded me of Indonesia, which I guess shouldn’t be too surprising since both nations are volcanic archipelagoes. All in all, it was an enjoyable three weeks in a place that Joylani and I agree we’ll return to someday.
The Yasakuni Shrine has been in the news a lot the past few years, so it was a must-see sight for me. It was raining in the morning, but Joylani and I decided to walk anyways, as its only a few blocks from the Tosus. It looks like just a typical shrine, with gates and a few central buildings. If I didn’t know the significance, I wouldn’t have know that it was all that important, because all the signage was in Japanese. I later asked Yumi what Japanese think about prime ministerial visits to the shrine. She said that most Japanese don’t see it as offensive, because it honors those who died defending Japan. I’ve asked a couple other people about it the past two weeks and have heard similar things. Most people can see why China and Korea are upset, but they must realize that the shrine is not only dedicated to war criminals, but all Japanese who died in the war. I tend to agree that its fine for Koizumi or Abe or Aso to visit the shrine, because they are paying tribute to the common people who died in the war. And of course, being a “history buff” (as people call me), the Japanese leaders did not do anything worse than Allied commanders in the war. Had the US and UK lost the war, FDR and Churchill would have been convicted of war crimes for firebombing Japanese urban areas and indiscrimately bombing German cities. It was a terrible era, when “total war” was the norm.
I had not known that there was a museum accompanying the shrine, but seeing a war museum from a Japanese perspective was too good to pass up. After a year of seeing WWII museums from the victims of Japanese imperialism perspective, I was really curious to see how Japan saw its history. While there were exhibits on bushido, samurai, and the various shogunates, I was really interested in WWII sections. It seems that in the early part of the century, they were like any other colonial power in that they felt they had right to colonize parts of the world. They felt justified in fighting Russia and taking control of Manchuria and Korea. Similarly, they felt shafted when they didn’t get 100% of the German territory in Asia after WWI. During the interwar period, the museum tried to explain that Japan developed poor China and Korea and “incidents” such as Nanking were exaggerated and propogandized accounts which stemmed from Japanese troops trying to defend Japanese immigrants from hostile locals. As if they had a right to be there in the first place. As for WWII, the museum really took the position that Japan was forced into a corner by the US. It was, but the museum failed to mention that its reliance upon US oil and steel exports was due to its expansive imperialism. It proudly described the accomplishments of Japan early in the war, but gave an accurate description of everything. From the failed diplomatic efforts (which US history books often omit) to the hugely successful attacks in Dec-Feb of 1941-42 to the Japanese demise beginning at the Battle of Midway. The museum, almost comically, goes over the Asian countries that gained independence following WWII. I say comically, because the exhibit says that, despite its WWII defeat, independent Japan inspired independence movements from India to Indonesia, but it fails to mention that they’re the ones that colonized most of Asia! I have no idea how well the museum articulates the views of most Japanese towards their past, but I’m assuming that school textbooks aren’t that far off of the national museum’s perspectives. Its too bad that they cannot look at themselves and teach more objectively, but its nothing worse than how history is taught in Europe or America. I guess we all have a tendency to turn a blind eye to our mistakes and aggrandize our accomplishments.
Those hearty, warm meals we crave when it’s cold out symbolize more than just a meal. It takes time to make a soup or stew from scratch, and the enduring idea behind a hearty bowl of stew is generally, “made with love by ma.” Today was one of those cold gloomy days. We were getting ready to go. It was grey and raining outside. But we knew there was a bowl of tasty stew waiting for us before we left. And so after packing and making one final sight-seeing stop, we headed upstairs to the Tosu’s, where Yumi-san and Sadako-san had made us the most delicious “simple” farewell lunch. Tokyo is an amazing place to visit. But without the warm hospitality of these two amazing women and their family and friends, it would have just been canned soup—still filling, but not as personal. In fact, our whole time in Japan was made so much better because we could spend it with family and friends. So thanks to everyone for making our trip in Japan so special!
Tonight was more Tokyo highlife. Literally, as the Tosu’s took us to observation deck of the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower. It is the highlight of the new Roppongi Hills district. The observation deck was really cool with windows all the way around the 52nd floor, offering 360 degrees of great views. We went at sunset and watched the city darken and then illuminate. Akio and Yusuke checked out the Sky Aquarium, while the rest of us looked at a contemporary art museum on the 53rd floor. The city views were the highlight though.
After the observation deck, we went downstairs to a French restaurant in the Grand Hyatt. I was told it is the best restaurant in Tokyo and Sadako knows the manager of the hotel, so we got extra special treatment. I pretty much gorged myself on beef and seafood, although I tried some new things too. Most notably, Eisuke put me up to eating escargot, which was the first time for me. Not bad. One cool thing about the restaurant was that many of the walls were wine coolers. I asked one of the waiters about them and learned that the restaurant has over 3,000 bottles of wine, 100% French. Desert was delicious too and Yusuke helped me create some desert using the chocolate fountain. It was a spectacular dinner to cap our week in Tokyo.
Kamakura is known for its numerous temples and shrines, and on the recommendation of our hosts, we went to check it out. It’s about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo on a commuter train. The trip is pleasant and we watched the change in scenery along with the (sometimes crazy) footwear of the other passengers. Boots are big here, as are knee-high socks with heels (reflecting the appearance of boots), and overall I feel that Japanese have a really fun sense of fashion. In Tokyo there’s sophisticated dressers (but not boring), and of course there is the more statement-oriented dressers sporting bright colored shoes, crazy layers of clothes, etc. Anyways, since I tend to look towards the floor when on commuter trains (to avoid awkward eye contact) this makes for some fun shoe-watching.
When we arrived at the Kamakura station we were delighted to find an assortment of informational sheets on various sites and walking routes in the city. I was impressed with the quality and usefulness of the information included on these small sheets. Each one had a map, history, transportation time and options (including bus route numbers), hours of operation and admission fee (if applicable). I’ve picked up a lot of maps and tourist pamphlets over the past year, and these may have been the best of them all. This method is way more convenient than the usual map or city booklets which usually contain a lot of information you don’t need. Matt and I chose a few leaflets with walking routes and a couple with information on the places we planned to visit. And off we went.
Kamakura is a touristy town, but not in a bad way. Unlike some places, there are actually a lot of things to see here and getting around is easily done by foot or bus, and the crowds weren’t bad at all. We started by walking down Wakamiya-Oji, the main street through town from the train station towards the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Small shops lined the road selling everything from fresh manju to all kinds of pickles and the standard souvenirs to more unique items, like hand-dyed textiles. In the middle of the road was a long, tree-lined promenade leading all the way to the shrine. After a year with no seasons except summer, it finally felt like autumn.
The promenade continued from the entrance up to the shrine, flanked on either side by ponds bursting with water lilies, buildings, including a small museum, and a few vendors selling snacks and artwork. Closer to the shrine many artists sat sketching and painting the scene from the hill in front of them. At the base of the hill was a large pavilion. A Shinto wedding ceremony was taking place and the participants seemed to be stoically oblivious (or perhaps just indifferent) to the dozens of people passing by, many of whom were taking pictures.
An inviting staircase led up the hill to the main building. A happy flock of trees graced the hillside, and cheerfully covered the area around the shrine. We walked up the stairs, enjoying the bevy of activity happening around us. Many people were buying Ema, small wooden plaques on which to write prayers and wishes. The Ema are hung in front of the shrine so that the Kami (gods) can read them. We saw many families with small babies dressed in what looked like christening clothes. Apparently there is a similar type Shinto ceremony for blessing new babies. The Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine was an enjoyable place to visit because it had such a welcoming atmosphere, accommodating those visiting for whatever reason, even just curious tourists like us.
We left the shrine by way of another path that took us past another temple tucked back in the woods. It was beautifully framed by the forest, and as we walked away the trees slowly closed in around it. Following the path, we exited the Tsurugaoka Hachimangu area and walked down a side street towards our next destination: Hokokuji Temple. We had no big plans for our day in Kamakura, so we took our time walking. On the way we spent a few minutes watching a butterfly flutter amidst a cluster of flowers. The butterfly was so big that every time the wings closed it dipped for a second before the next flap. And so it zigzagged horizontally through the big blooms until finding a satisfactory spot to sip some nectar. The delicate red petals provided a nice compliment to the curves of the butterfly’s solid black wings. More fauna was to be enjoyed in the steam that ran alongside the road: wild carp. They looked ancient, and their thick bodies looked toughened to the harsher environment of this stream as compared to the usual garden ponds I’ve seen such fish in. We watched them swim for awhile and it seemed that they were watching us back.
Hokokuji Temple was, not surprisingly, very beautiful and peaceful. We spent some time walking around the grounds and enjoyed the bamboo garden in the back. These bamboos are Moso, the biggest species of the plant, and they looked so elegant with their clean, strong lines. Presently, Matt and I both started to feel our tummies grumble, so we headed off back towards the main part of town to find some food. Our search consisted of examining the obligatory bowls of plastic food in window displays outside of each restaurant. I’m not sure how this is a good judge of a restaurant since I’m sure all the plastic cuisine must come from the same place, but at least we knew what was available to order. We chose a friendly little spot and ordered a couple bowls of soba noodles, which happily came with little mocha balls on the side. The simple but tasty meal fit the feel of the town.
It was a mellow day for us, and also our last full day in Japan. The afternoon in Kamakura sped by and before we knew it we had to catch the train back into the city to meet the Tosu’s for dinner. There was still so much more to see, but it didn’t feel as though our day-trip had lacked anything. I like places like that—where there is enough to keep you engaged without having to do everything. There we still over a dozen temples we had yet to see, Yuigahama Beach, and probably dozens of tasty restaurants and snacks to sample along the way. The best way I can think of to describe the feeling is that it’s like Thanksgiving, where you know there will be more to eat later (turkey sandwiches and pumpkin pie for breakfast). You had a great meal and good company, but it’s just the beginning of the holiday season.
Sports day is a once a year event that happens at primary schools throughout Japan. The students all get together, cheered on by parents, to compete in, well, sports. We went to check out Yusuke’s sports day today, and had a really good time. First of all, it was the most organized school event I have ever been to. Now, I love my little old Pacific Union Elementary, but from what I can remember that place has nothing on the school we visited, particularly in terms of a well-run event. Sports day commenced with a “parade of classes” around the track. Personal flags for each student (made by moms) waved in the air. The students orderly lined up for the opening speeches and then divided into four pre-set teams. Each team had students from every grade, making them more or less even. The events started with a mundane type of oversized ball relay, but then the foot races started, and that’s where I was thoroughly impressed. Race heats were done by grade. For each grade there were maybe about 50-70 runners, running 5 at time. They all lined up behind the starting line. The race went for halfway around the track. The first set of runners took their mark, a shotgun was fired, and the kids started to run. Some were better than others, but they all gave it their best shot. Upon reaching the finish line each runner was met by an assistant (another student) who would escort them to a place in the appropriate line for their place (1st, 2nd 3rd, etc). As this happened the shotgun would go off again and the next set of runners would start racing. In this way what seemed like a painfully big number of racers smoothly completed their races with seemingly little effort.
From a spectator standpoint this was more interesting to watch because there was always something happening on the field. In between races there were little dance performances, one by each grade, and a few other relay games. One of my favorites involved a broom stick. The kids lined up in rows of four. The row in the back was marked with tags. The row in the front held a broomstick. At the starting signal, the first row ran out to the first cone, which they had to circle before running ahead to the next cone, which they also had to circle before running back to their team. As the broom-holders would circle the stick the kid at the end would practically fly off due to the centrifugal force. (Note to player: put fast kid at end of stick to make a winning team.) This was fun to watch. Running back towards their teammates, the broom-holders dragged the stick under their teammates as they jumped up to avoid tripping over the stick. The stick was then passed over everyone’s heads back to the front of the line and the process was repeated until the last row had gone. By far the most popular event we saw was a multi-grade relay run which had the whole crowd cheering loudly. But my personal favorite was still the stick game.
Once again we flashed our handy JR Rail Passes and made use of our pre-paid fares to head all the way up to Fukushima. My grandmother’s parents were from here, and I was curious to see what it looked like. I knew the town would obviously look different than 100 years ago, but I knew I could at least get a feel for the place in terms of landscape and weather. Our destination was 288 km from Tokyo, though it only took an hour and a half on the bullet train. It was drizzling steady when we arrived, and after picking up a map from the info office at the station, we ran across the street in search for umbrella. This was easy to be found. However, as we walked out of the store and opened our new umbrella both Matt and I were dismayed to discover it was child-sized and only big enough to maybe keep our faces dry. But then it stopped raining (so it goes when you’ve just bought an umbrella). Fukushima is north of Tokyo, and consequently a bit cooler. There are sweet little mountains surrounding the town which, according to the tourist brochure I picked up, come alive with reds and oranges in the fall. We wandered around town for a bit before deciding to head towards Mt. Shinobu. There are some old Buddhist carvings in the rock there and we figured that sounded like the most interesting thing to see in this small town. It was a pleasant walk past well-loved houses and buildings. Once at the base of the hill there was a lovely sidewalk followed by a stream. Periodically there were bird-info plaques (for the avian enthusiasts), and periodically a bench to rest on, or to wait for birds.
Before we’d reached the carvings we came across a cemetery. At first glance it appeared to be small, but upon further notice as we walked up the hill, the cemetery was actually quite large. Walking up the hill we admired the style of memorial stones as well as the view of Fukushima. The carvings were just a little bit further around the hill (actually adjacent to the far side of the cemetery). They area was small and the details had been washed away by wind and rain long before we arrived, but it was interesting nonetheless. I wondered if my grandmother’s family had ever come to this hill to check it out.
And then, since we didn’t know what else to do in Fukushima, and because there was a dark cloud speeding across the sky, Matt and I turned around and walked back to the train station. It was a simple day, but I hadn’t been expecting much. And I’m happy to have seen where my ancestors used to live.
Although not a formal tour, today was a blitz through many scenes of Tokyo life. In the morning, Joylani and I headed to Akhihabara, nicknamed “the electric city.” Basically, it’s a whole district of Tokyo that sells electronics. I didn’t necessarily want to buy anything, but just wanted to see the stores and check out the products and new technology (most of which I assume won’t make it to the US for several more years). Also, I realized that electronics and sushi are the only two things that are cheaper in Japan, and in my opinion that’s two pretty good things if you can have anything cheap. After Akhihabara, we headed to Nihonbashi, which is the financial district. As you may have guessed, I had to check out the Tokyo Stock Exchange. Like Korea’s KRX, the TSE has gone totally electronic and the trading floor has been converted into a museum. There was a good photo gallery chronicling the history of the exchange and a small but nice museum going over the history of capitalism in Japan. It was definitely the most interesting exchange we’ve visited so far, although the BSE is up there too. We then walked around nearby Ginza, an upscale shopping district of luxury and high-end brands. We didn’t spend too much time as it was honestly too expensive to even look at.
In the afternoon, Sadako picked us up and took us to Mitsukoshi, a high-end department store. She showed us what she described as “real Japanese culture.” We saw a whole floor of traditional Japanese kimonos and another of pottery and ceramics. It is also worth mentioning that Sadako creates kimonos and has an annual exhibit at Mitsukoshi, where she displays here work. She is actually quite accomplished and has created kimonos for many heads of state (or their spouses) as well as for members of Japan’s aristocracy and imperial family. After that, she took us to her home and demonstrated some of her techniques to Joylani. We had tea and snacks and then went out to an awesome sushi dinner with Dr. Kojima. Luckily, he and I both love sushi and we ate everything, from fried eel spine to fresh sea urchin to amazing sashimi. I think I’m gonna miss Japan