Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Kyoto - Sunday through Wednesday

Sunday began with a visit to Tō-ji Temple, famed for its five-story pagoda, which, according to Wikipedia, is the tallest wooden tower in Japan. I recall the dark wood and dreamy hint of incense wafting through the air. During our ambles we stopped by a pond, dipped our fingers in the windswept water, and attracted the ravenous attention of fat orange koi. Then we spotted a marker sitting atop a stone turtle. A couple of nice ladies used gestures to demonstrate how we should touch parts of the turtle associated with our bodies to enjoy the benefits of improved health. If only I hadn’t forgotten to focus attention on my right knee, which sometimes reminds me when I’ve been hiking too far.

Later that afternoon we wandered the serene precincts of Koshoji Temple before ducking the rain drops on our way to a nap back at the hotel. That night we discovered the wisdom of lodging near Kyoto Station, surveying its wide assortment of restaurant options. We opted for sushi, the kind served on assorted plates that ride a conveyer belt. Believe it or not, this was my first experience with the real thing (not including “California Rolls” and the like). Yes, I stayed away from the really complex stuff, but I developed an appreciation for fresh salmon and tuna.

The next day we awoke much earlier than Jenny would prefer to catch the JR train to Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. What a lovely way to start the morning. Before the crowds arrive, it’s possible to have the wooden green tunnel almost entirely to yourself. Even the occasional fellow traveler becomes a companion because, hey, they too journeyed here for the quiet and peaceful feeling. Mist hangs over the hills that dot the horizon, and it’s almost as if you’ve entered some “floating world” piece of art. Then we saw the sign: monkeys! We had to check that out.

So our next stop was the Kyoto Monkey Park. Getting there requires a semi-arduous climb. But, wow, is the peak worth the sweat. That’s when you find yourself among a society of macaques and learn to take quite seriously their facial cues for fear or anger. This is, after all, their mountain. We made friends after buying some bananas and unshelled peanuts, observing only a little drama when larger primates would bully the smaller ones out of their treats.

After descending the mountain, we returned to the riverside and rented a row boat, which - amid a growing crowd of other watercraft - inspired me to wish that I learned a bit more about station-keeping in the Navy. Thus it was all the more fun when a sailor would nod and smile once I figured out how to avoid ramming into the bigger vessels. On our way out of the touristy part of town, we stopped once more, this time to pet the owls and Bengal cats at a café that charges by the half-hour. By this time we were thoroughly tired. So it was back to the hotel for a nap, followed by more sushi at our new favorite place.

Tuesday began with an odd visit to a truly surreal Starbucks near Yasaka Pagoda. Built in a Machiya, this place is organized around small rooms where espresso hounds can sip and chat on tatami mats. Even Jenny - who never drinks coffee and detests early mornings - agreed that this was worth the stop. I can’t even imagine showing up after 9:30 a.m. or so, though; the crowds get pretty intense. So anyone wanting to follow the footsteps of our trip, take my advice: arrive as close to 8 a.m. as possible. You’ll thank me. Thereafter we wandered the Gion District, hunted for souvenirs, grabbed a couple seats in a cramped but perfectly tasty ramen place, and then rested up for the night’s adventures: a hike through the 10,000 (or so) Torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine.

Again, at a place like this, the goal is to avoid the crowds. So we grabbed another JR train and arrived just before twilight. At first the place was packed, but once we began to climb those steps, the throngs mostly cleared out. After sunset we found ourselves gazing over Kyoto’s glorious panorama, and I foolishly believed that the hard part of the journey was over. Just a few more turns around the mountain, right? Not even close. As the moon rose over the stone foxes, shrine alcoves, and glowing red gates, we encountered the truly steep part of the climb. After two hours (including a couple unexpected detours) we arrived at the summit. What a lovely view! After some rest we began our descent, past closed shops and temple cats searching for prey. A perfect evening.

Our last day in Kyoto called for a quick pilgrimage to the gravesite of Lady Murasaki, author of the Tale of Genji, which his considered to be the world’s first novel. Genji’s richness of characterization and psychological insight, along with the depiction of courtly life in Japan’s Heian-era, compelled at least a brief stop at this site.

But of course the morning was really about a return to Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen! I half expected that the place would still be closed for renovation, but we arrived to find the shop packed with tourists (and a few locals) awaiting the theater of broth, noodles, oil, and flame. At first they instructed us to wait, but when they recognized us as the pitiful folks who showed up to closed doors five days ago, they ushered us into seats and poured on the greetings. The meal was wonderful. And the performance, anchored by detailed positioning of employees and training of guests how to join the fun without getting burned, was a delightful way to wrap up our visit to Kyoto. Soon, though, we had to head back, board the bullet train, and make our way north to Tokyo (passing by Mount Fuji under blue skies). Japan, we are exhausted, charmed, and increasingly broke. A wonderful trip so far.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Top 10 interesting experiences in Japan (thus far!)

Genbaku Dome
We've only been here for a few days, focusing on Hiroshima. This afternoon we're taking the Shinkansen to Kyoto. For now, a few TENtative reflections:

First and foremost, the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is a quiet, thoughtful, beautiful collection of commemorations to the victims and survivors of the world's first use of atomic weaponry. We spent two days wandering about, studying exhibits and immersing ourselves in questions about how this site works rhetorically, aesthetically, and practically. I will have much more to say about this park in coming months. But for now I can simply confirm that this place is a must-visit for any traveler.

Courtesy, grace, and honor are so widely practiced here. Yes, there are layers of meaning that I cannot fathom (without much more time and reflection). And given my obvious appearance and performance as a Western tourist, I won't even attempt to consider the authenticity of what we've experienced. For now it's enough to appreciate the generosity of strangers, the kindness of a bow, the earnest desire to avoid offense. Folks in the U.S. could learn a great deal from Japan.

Food is simply amazing. Yes, my first "meal" was some sort of savory, gooey, squishy thing on a stick purchased from one of the many, many, many 7-11s in Japan [we arrived too late to find a restaurant]. Since then meals have been a delight: Mazemen, Udon, naturally, but also the best beef I ever had. Jenny and I found a comfy, cramped place where they serve Wagyu. Along with a couple of quietly chatting fellows and a cheerful group of salarymen nearby, we were the only foreigners around. And they made us feel right at home with a simply sublime meal.

Transportation is clean, safe, fast, and pleasant. My favorite part is the sense that most folks riding buses, metros and the like treat these mobilities as sites of refuge from the noise that permeates many other public places, speaking (if at all) as if in a library. Tickets for the bullet train are much more dear than I'd prefer, but I'm sure that ride is going to be a delight all the same.

Sharing unmarked sidewalks with bikers is a little scary but manageable. Here of all places, I'd think that there'd be a formal rule (walk on left, walk on right, whatever), but it seems less organized than that. Bikers seem happy to weave around pedestrians on either side. So far, no accidents, so I'll try to trust the system - and keep my eyes open.

Japanese toilets (as is well known) are awesome. No news there. Even so, despite having visited the country once before, I've never actually availed myself of, shall we say, all of the features (bidet, masking sound, scent-spritz, etc.). But now I'm on board. We're getting one of these suckers for our home back in the States!

Nonverbal gestures are a topic of personal (and professional) fascination. I've learned to point to my nose rather than my chest when referring to myself. I've seen (and received) a couple X-arm gestures, which indicate bad activity - like taking a picture where I shouldn't. And I understand that I should never give a "thumbs down" emblem around here. In Japan, doing so is considered obscene. [I'm glad I read about that gesture before getting here!] So much more to learn...

Pachinko is intimidating! Since seeing a cartoon version of the "gaming device" on an old Simpsons episode, I've always wanted to play. So we entered a crowded, smokey parlor. But the games! Such a cacophony of video clips, sound effects, and tumbling silver balls. Hard to figure out. I think I'll wait until we get to Tokyo where I can visit a parlor where they offer instructions.

I wonder how many homesick
Americans stumble into this place!
The corporate jingle they play in Edion (an electronics superstore of sorts). We came here to get SIM cards for our phones. The experience was... stressful, especially since literally not one person among dozens could help us. They seemed genuinely surprised to be selling the danged things, and absolutely perplexed that anyone would be confused by the set-up process. Folks hovered nearby, sort of wanting to help but embarrassed that they couldn't. Three cheers to Jenny for working the problem. The employees were more relieved than we when I assured them that we were happy (and leaving). Still, I can't get that bouncy jingle, sung by children, out of my mind. Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-EE-DEE-ON!

Television is worth a follow-up post all its own. I know that commercials don't reflect the reality of any culture, yet I cannot help but study each spot for insights into how life works here. I won't fall into the ethnocentric trap of labels; my inchoate readings only reveal my own limitations. But there is something delightfully new (to me) about the expansive gestures, the sound effects, the costumed characters, and the other attributes to shows and commercials. And then there's kids entertainment... Oh, to grow up in Japan!

Anyway, that's enough for now. Next stop: Kyoto!