2014
05.31

NAHA

SYNOPSIS:  Four more UNESCO sites to cover in Naha on an all rainy day.  About the “real thing” and the Disney version of it.   Does it matter?

It was in the forecast and it came through as promised:  a day full of rain.  A few minutes here and there it let up, but mainly, the day was gray, hot and wet.  I left my “mini” at home and borrowed one of the hostel’s big transparent umbrellas.  At least I could see through it.  It was hard all day to maneuver the umbrella with my forearms and to operate the camera with both hands.  But who is complaining?  I am about to finish my Okinawa mission against all the odds.

It was quite melancholic (to say the least) to visit Shikina-En Royal Garden in a downpour.  But then, there were hardly any visitors besides me and that counts for something.  I am afraid there will be lots of gardens, castles and shrines from here on out.  I will try to cut down on details but focus more on the unique features of each of them.

This garden was only started in the 18th Century based on a circular design — which means that as you circle the garden you enjoy a variety of different landscapes which have been carefully planted.  This garden was particularly known for rare plants that were chosen to bloom at different times of the year.  The garden was completely destroyed during WWII and rebuilt to the tune of $8 million only in the 1970s.  It took over 20 year to complete it.   That was monument #1.

Shurijo Castle Park is the big attraction in town.  It glares at you from various billboards, is advertised in all tourist brochures and I almost did not want to take it seriously as one of the UNESCO monuments.  It was obviously rebuilt and beefed up in brilliant vermilion red, much like an amusement park.  Originally constructed in the 14th Century, this castle was the heart and centre of the Ryukyu kingdom until the Meiji Restoration.   But like the Royal Garden, it was reduced to ashes in WWII.

Overlooked by most visitors, on the way up to the shiny castle you pass by a small, worn, stone gate, the Sonohyan-Utaki.  It, in its own right, is registered as UNESCO monument #3 in Naha because it is actually authentic.   The king would pray in front of this gate for a safe journey when he left the castle.  So, for tradition’s sake and since it seemed to have worked for the king, I did the same.  🙂

One is hard pressed to find just one in a hundred of all the visitors who, after descending from the castle, actually crosses the street, walks past a long stone wall, and enters the Tama-u-dun, the royal burial place registered as the final UNESCO monument dedicated to Ryukyu culture.  The tomb complex dates back to the 15th Century and was moved to this spot on some later day.  One has to pay a separate entrance fee and ultimately, there is not that much to it.  A small museum with a few urns and artifacts, none of which is labeled in English.  But… it is after all a UNESCO monument, yet no attention is drawn to it.  Why not?

The site itself consists of one of two extant gate houses that flanks a stone wall with a small door leading into a forecourt.  It, in turn, leads to the final court facing three buildings raised on a platform.  After the bling and glitz of the castle, this cemetery has a stark and dark aura to it.  I actually liked this feel of gloom.  It fit the rainy day and the idea of death.  I was completely alone there.  This cemetery was damaged in WWII, but enough had been left so that it could be repaired rather than rebuilt from scratch.

I remember Professor Kane talking with disdain about any castle or building that was a mere reconstruction denying it any value whatsoever.  I will have to hold judgment on this for now since I have not yet seen the real thing, Himeji Castle, for example.  But there is something disconcerting over the fact that most people seem to be drawn to the spiffy looking remake and in turn overlook the authentic “left over”.

Funny enough, I started out the day on one of the early siteseeing buses in which you can loop around on a one-day pass.  It stops at all the sites of interest to visitors and prevents foreigners like me from having to navigate the rather complex system of city buses.  It’s a nifty thing which I hear exists in many other cities, too.

One of those military guys was on it — you actually see quite a few around in this area if you pay attention — and we briefly talked.  By the time I got to the castle (after the garden), he boarded the bus that I was leaving.  That meant that he had checked off both of these sites in about one hour.  He was at least one in 1000, I envisioned as interested enough to at least get to the local sites, and most likely typical in his speed.  But he was not the one in 10,000 who would actually care and take time.  It reminded me again how lucky I had gotten to run into Mike two days ago.

I am so happy that I finished my Okinawa mission:  UNESCO site #1 (in nine parts) is checked off.   I knew it would be the most difficult to manage and the most costly to accomplish.  By the sheer miracle of meeting Mike, and only because of him, I was able to do this.  The remaining 12 sites should be a piece of cake.

Originally, I had planned to take a 25 hour overnight ferry off the island back to the “mainland” as people in Okinawa like to call Japan.  But to get to one of three ports, to figure out which ferry line was going that day, all would have cost me valuable time which I did not have.  So I took the easy way out and booked a flight online.

But now I have to catch up writing.  Too much sightseeing.  Not enough time to process…  And then I need some sleep!

Good night.

2014
05.30

SYNOPSIS:  About a 14 hour day sight-seeing on Okinawa.  A shinto shrine, two castles, a crafts village and a fast-food Sushi place.  It could not have happened without Mike.

 

It was a 14 hour Marathon.  I can’t imagine anyone pushing through the day like this with no food breaks but another “culture freak”.  I was completely pooped at the end of it and I was not even the one driving or the one who had to pay attention!

At 7 AM we had arranged for a spot to meet.  Mike sort of knows his way around the island, but that does not eliminate the incredible density of urban traffic he had to maneuver through versus the bit of highway driving we had while going north.   What looked on the map like a hop south took us 1.5 hours to reach, just in time for the site to open.

This part of the UNESCO site — of the cluster of nine monuments designed to preserve and demonstrate the variety of Ryokyon culture — was Sefa -Utaki, a sacred Shinto shrine.  It was the sacred shrine which in the Ryokyon legends was associated with the birth of the island and Ryokyon culture per se. The head priestess of the kingdom was inaugurated here and people from all around performed pilgrimages to the site and to some extent, they still do.

For the first time, I got a sense of just how tropical this island really is.  Mike insisted that by the end of August, some of the spiders we saw, that are now as large as a fingernail, will be as big as your hand…  Yikes!  Even without arachnophobia I am terrified of that thought.  It was sticky and muggy in the forest, yet it also felt breezy and in a sense cleansing to walk around from one sacred area to the next, six in all.

That was the easy part.  From here we headed up north to Nakijin Castle, another typical castle of the masonry style we had seen yesterday.  Yet, each of these castles has its own character.  Here, the first couple of enclosures had been allowed to grow into an orchard.  The sense of size was completely lost by the feel of walking around under the cover of trees until one had reached the top and was able to look down.  I am not sure I am very fond of that.   Some of the wall parts were slithering along in those typical undulating waves that they seemed like a huge snake.  People have also compared the effect of this wall to that of the Great Wall.  Perhaps.

A museum of quite recent artifacts, early 20th century, was all fine and interesting, but since all captions were strictly in Japanese much was lost on us.  The castle here is actually part of a whole complex which would require a walking tour of probably two hours to take in the remains of various shrines, stone structure remains, and sacred trees between the castle and the village.  We could not even consider walking this if we wanted to make it back before dark.  So we focused just on the castle itself.

The 20-30 mile of highway we drove cost us $10 in toll fees.  Wow, they really don’t want you to get anywhere fast, or what?  Aside from that, there is only this one real highway cutting North to South on the entire island.  It displayed some curious signs like: hedgehog crossing.  No kidding!  It also offered some spectacular views of the jungle, unspoiled mountains, and the ocean.  Here, the urban sprawl finally had stopped.  But we had to come this far to see it.

Zakimi Castle, about at midpoint at the Western coast of the island, was our last stop.  It was one of the few monuments without a ticket booth.  It was mercifully small, too.  By then, I started to feel the drain of the day.  But we were not done yet.

Too close to pass up, a pottery village was advertised and I really wanted to see it.  As an added bonus it turned out to also feature a glassblowing workshop, something Mike is particularly fond of.  Okinawa seems to have a substantial glassblowing tradition.  Shops are showcasing some of the glassware, which ranges from uneven, clearly crafty pieces to highly polished cut crystal.

For me the draw was a row of kilns that curiously sloped upwards under a tiled roof and seemed to all be fired by one huge underground fire pit.  Indeed, it was the coolest thing I have seen pottery-related in a long time.  The next firing is June 10, if anyone is in the area.  The doors, now on wooden hinges, will be all bricked up for the duration of the firing.  The fire will go for three days, we were told, and the cooling period after that is 10 days.  The kiln looked old, but in reality was only 35 years in operation.  However, this type of kiln and firing goes back hundreds of years and was only revived not too long ago just before it would have slipped into oblivion.

The day was winding down. It is getting dark early here.  No more sightseeing.  I invited Mike to choose a restaurant so I could at least take him out to dinner.  After this day of sightseeing in our sweaty and exhausted state, a fancy restaurant seemed out of place (and out of budget).  So, Mike chose a curiosity which I would have never found on my own:  a Sushi “fast food” restaurant.  It was unbelievable: people sat at various tables or at a counter, and a conveyer belt with sushi plates always with two pieces at a time was rolling by.  You would grab what you liked or if nothing came by you were interested in, you could order from the menu.  In that case, your special order would roll around minutes later accompanied by an announcement on the computer screen, which was part of every table’s setup.  The computer was there for you to look at the choices, call your waiter, etc.  It was the darndest thing.  If anyone would have just had this idea in the States — for sure in Ann Arbor, that would have made him/her a millionaire.  At the end you call the waiter and he will just count your plates to figure your bill.  Plates are color-coded at a flat price.  That is so simple, yet so effective.

This was a full day!  A day of happiness and accomplishment.  A day of surprises and discoveries.  Thanks, Mike!  I couldn’t have done it without you.  I hope you had as much fun as I did.  And I wonder if our paths will ever cross again.  I still can’t believe that they crossed in the first place.

Good night.

2014
05.29

SYNOPSIS:   About two castles and one historic farm house.   About the challenges that are caused by urban sprawl.  And about meeting the one in ten thousand…

In my naiveté I had first envisioned a tourist industry built around visiting the nine spread-out castles, shrines and tombs that make up the UNESCO monuments dedicated to preserving Ryukyo Culture that were listed as world heritage in 2000.   No such thing.

In my never lacking optimism I had at least envisioned an overland bus system that in no time would zip me up and down the island.  After all, it was no more than 65 miles long and the most northern monument a mere 50 miles up.  No more than the distance from Ann Arbor to Detroit.  A piece of cake.  But no such thing either.

The reality could be compared a lot more to getting on a Chicago city bus which stops every few blocks.  Even though my bus (#52) only stopped about every 5 minutes, and I had carefully opted not for the Northern most, but for two of the more centrally located monuments no more than 25/30 miles away – it took a full two hours from the bus terminal in Naha to arrive there.  And that after waiting for the bus for 40 minutes.  It was almost noon when I arrived.  The urban sprawl in the south of this island is continuous.  I had crossed at least 5 city lines without notice.   And up in smoke went my dream of visiting nine sites in three days…  But I could not dwell on that.  I had a mountain to climb.

Katsuren Castle, my first site, has a rich history which is at this point way beyond my scope of knowledge.  But it is clear that castles in this culture differ greatly from those of the crusaders, for example.  They seem to be a combination of palace, defence, and very importantly, worship.  The living quarters were all gone.  And the worship areas were only recognizable in their most rudimentary forms:  A big tree, a trickle of water, a large stone, or a hole in the ground.  A lot of imagination is needed to envision the rituals that once were performed here.

But what remains are the ramparts, the massive undulating walls of defence created in three distinct and impressive types of stone masonry:  there is the rough wall put together with large stones and gravel, called Nozura-Zumi.  Then there is the cut stone constructed of regularly shaped squares known as Nuno-Zumi.  And finally, there is Aikata-Zumi, the tight fitting wall put together with multiple-sided stones at a level of precision which matches the famous Inca walls in Cusco .  No mortar was used.  And yet, despite multiple earthquakes and the wear and tear of time, much of this construction has lasted.

There is a serenity to a place like this that is hard to capture in pictures or to put into words.  Not too many visitors were there.  Gorgeous ocean views open up once you are on top of the mountain.  Areas that used to be filled with homes and storage facilities are now wide open and covered with carefully manicured grass.  It is like walking on a carpet.  And a few trees, shrubs, and rocks puncture the various enclosures just enough to prevent the site from looking plain.

If the sun had not been beating down on my uncovered head, I would have spent a lot longer there.  But I could feel that I was paying a price.  I think I need one of those cloth umbrellas after all.  The locals always know what they are doing and an ignorant visitor like me is well advised to follow suit.  Too late for today…

After a 20 minute wait at the sun-flooded bus stop, #52 took me to the next site.  However, I had been forewarned – I would have to walk for 45 minutes to reach the next castle.  There was no direct bus…  No bus!  And we are talking a UNESCO world heritage site.  I have to say, that I felt quite let down.  So I braced myself for walking.  What’s three km and a bit?  But as a prelude to a second castle visit and a coda to the first one of the morning, coupled with sun and heat, and no food or water since the early morning, I could tell that I was overdoing it.  I needed a taxi.  But there was none…  And there was nobody to talk to either.  Until I spotted two women chatting.  Taxi?  No, they shook their heads and then started to point me back towards town to where I might find one; then to a restaurant somewhere out of site, where somebody might be able to call me one, and then one of them asked where I needed to go:  The Castle.   They seemed confused.  The Old House.  That was a historic site not too far from the castle, and they lit up.  We will take you to the old house they assured me and offered me a seat in their little car.  Thanks Ganesh!

The Old House of Nakagusuku, also known as Nakamura House, a registered national treasure threw me into exstacy.  There was a link which I remembered Professor Kane talking about:  How the shogunates of Japan, the military Samurai rulers had borrowed from Japanese farm architecture and rejected the heavily Chinese influenced Buddhist and Court culture for a more indigenous taste.  I don’t recall seeing examples of this farm architecture in class, only the synthesis that came of it.  But here it was in its purest form which is now quite rare.

Don’t mistake “farm” for poor.  We are talking more like feudal lords here; rich people, land owners.  This family went back to the 15th Century; the house was built after the 1720s in a style however, that can be traced all the way back to the 12th Century Kamakura period.  I was the only visitor and I am glad that I did not embarrass myself in front of others in my excitement over every pot, fork, kitchen pit, or pig sty.  It was just too cool.  As you enter through the gate you bump into a wall, the Hinpun, which is supposed to keep bad spirits out.  That felt rather Chinese to me. But the beast that was snarling down from the rooftop seems to be a local variety and is called the Shi-sa. The small garden around the cluster of houses was exquisite and what impressed me most was a natural wind-breaker of Fukugi trees that were over 250 years old.

Less than a kilometre from here to the castle.  It seemed a lot bigger than the one I had seen in the morning.  The parking lot was full of cars and a few taxis were waiting for their customers.  I would definitely have to hitch a ride with somebody back.  Not another 45 minute hike after this.  I was optimistic.

Layout and character of the Nakagusuku Castle resembled the castle in the morning, but everything was bigger and more spread out sporting a total of six enclosures used for everything from training horses, to exercise, to fabrication of cannons and living quarters.  The overall effect was even more powerful and serene.

As I toured the site I was considering my choices of whom to approach for a lift.  I decided to focus on the foreign visitors since there was a better chance of speaking English.  The two young men?  No, they were obviously in a hurry and probably had come with one of the taxis.  The two Japanese girls who had a young American visitor in tow?  No.  They were having too much fun with each other.  The young couple?  No. I would feel too much like an intruder.   The two women with children?  No, their car was likely filled up.  But there he was:  reading a book at one of the ramparts.  He was obviously in no hurry, therefore here with his own car.  And he seemed to be with nobody, so I would not intrude.

I asked if he would take my picture – always a good pretext.  😉  And we started to chat.  He had been to Okinawa 15 times with the military since the 1990’s, and to the castle multiple times before.  He was reading a book on the battles and the history of these castles taking it all in on site.  Now that was my type of a guy!  After a bit more of chit-chat, I asked him if he would be willing to give me a lift back to the intersection to catch my bus.  No problem!  I assured him that I had as much time as he needed.  I was on no schedule.  And so I continued to tour the castle and he continued to read.  On my way back I caught up with him in one of the courts.  It was near closing time.  On the way to the intersection he offered to take me all the way back to Naha.  It was only 20 minutes of his time versus over an hour on the bus.  How could I say no?  And by the time we reached Naha and he heard what I was here for, he offered to drive with me tomorrow to see the northern sites, even the one way up, two of which he had never seen himself!

His name is Mike and he is a Lieutnant-Colonel pilot with the airforce.  Now, there are tens of thousands of American military personnel at this island.  But I bet you that there are less than one in 1000 who has even ventured to any of these castles and definitely not more than once.  And there are less than one in 10,000 who is excited about archaeology and history the way this guy was.  And I ran into him!  And he had the next day off!  Now how on earth did this happen??!!

On this simply amazing example of manifesting, I will say good night.

I just can’t get over this!

2014
05.28

SYNOPSIS:  Transit from Tokyo to Okinawa.  This is a “pause-picture” blog.  No need to read it.  Enjoy some aerial images from the Tokyo Tower.  

Contrary to Mali, transit in a country like Japan is uneventful and honestly, quite boring.  So the day went by predictably:  Walk to the subway, wait, take a train to the airport, wait, fly to Okinawa, find the tourist information, load up on local pamphlets, take a subway close to my destination, walk to the hotel.  And before you know it, the whole day has gone by.

So I won’t draw this out.  But here are a few points I noted in passing.  First of all, there is no question that you can take public transport to the airport (I always feel sorry for international travelers who arrive at Detroit with perhaps similar expectations…).  The subway to the airport leaves every 15 minutes, costs about $10, and takes 80 minutes.  But then there is also the fast train.  It leaves every 40 minutes and takes only 40 minutes, but it costs $20.

With my luck I arrived just after the fast train had left.  I had to decide what to do since I definitely did not save any time.  But despite that and the additional costs, I opted for the fast train in the interest of “data collection”.  I want to get to know as many different types of transportation as possible.  And one of these days I will devote a whole blog to that.  So far it does not look good for the Germans…

It was also interesting for me to compare costs.  $20 got me from downtown Tokyo to the airport.  And only $56 flew me all the way out (a 3 hour flight) to Okinawa island.  But to get off the island, nothing under $200 seems to be available.  It almost looks like as if “they” want to trap you here.

My new home is another hostel-type budget hotel.  Rooms are shared and furnished with bunk beds.  I got one of the smallest rooms with only one bunk and since the hostel is not filled to capacity, I don’t even have a roommate.  Lucky me, since again there is no more than 3 feet of space next to the bed and about 5 feet at the head of the bed.  Just enough to park my suitcase and to hang up my movable “closet” which I construct with a rubber clothes line and inflatable hangers.  Of course, there is no closet in a room like this.  A 2-inch pillow on the floor is my “chair”.  Thankfully, I had the other bed’s pillow and blanket to pile up to be able to sit.  I am not so good anymore sitting on the floor for long times…

But the atmosphere here reminds me of my hitch-hiking days.  All young people, backpackers or exchange students from around the globe gather here and hang out in the common area cooking, drinking, singing.  I am the oddball in all respects.  Agewise for sure, but also for the reason I am here.  It seems like everyone comes to this island to snorkel, dive, vege out at the beach.  It’s a resort island.  That there is a UNESCO monument spread out into nine parts seems to be unknown and certainly unnoticed.

Oh, well, that’s what I came for.  The task at hand seems more complicated than I anticipated.  I expected a small island with a few quaint villages.  Instead there is never-ending urban sprawl and a density that comes close to Tokyo.  Getting from one end of the island to the other in search of tucked away cultural treasures will be a challenge…

But I will face that tomorrow.  Good night.

2014
05.27

SYNOPSIS:  About a day filled with event and sites neither of which fit the expectations I had, yet…

What to do in Tokyo if you have only one more day?!  Yesterday was easy.  I did my ‘duty’ as an art-historian and visited the National Museum.  But today?  Where to start?  Tokyo is, by a huge margin, the largest city in the world and the guide book devotes a whopping 150 pages to it.  Tokyo is cram-packed with sites, monuments, museums, entertainment centres, neighbourhoods, activities, parks, shrines, zoos, shopping districts, etc.  I was overwhelmed.

My biological clock had not quite switched over to the new time zone yet, so I was up early.  One of the recommended sites for early risers is the Tokyo Fish Market.  It opens at 5 AM with serious biddings on hundreds of thousands of tons of all imaginable fishes as well as the most bizarre sea creatures.  According to the Lonely Planet, some of the rare fishes go for $1000 per pound.  Tourists must have been a nuisance for this business since for some time now, they are only allowed to enter after 9 AM.  By then the business activities have slowed down to a trickle and by 11 AM all is over and swept clean again.  By 8 AM I was on my way and I could have made it by 9 if I had not gotten sidetracked by an imposing barrel-vaulted building along the way.  This was a Buddhist chaitya hall of the sort I had studied way back at sites like Ajanta or Ellora, in India.  What was it doing here?

The Temple I was looking at, Tsukiji Hongwanji, was the third incarnation of the main temple of the Shinshu denomination of Pure Land Buddhism.  The first temple had been lost to the great Tokyo fire of 1657 and the second one had been a victim of the great Kanto earthquake in 1923.  The one rising in front of me had only been built between 1931 and 1934.  Ito Chuta, the professor of architecture in Tokyo at the time,  responsible for this unusual design, obviously wanted to pay his respect to the Indian roots of Buddhism. I read that Shinshu is one of the largest and most influential sects of Buddhism in Japan with over 10,000 temples and 30,000 ministers.  Wow!

But this was not the end of the surprise.  After being duly impressed by the masses of gold sparkling across from the altar and by the enormous gongs displayed to either side I turned back to leave, only to face a massive organ!  A pipe organ in a Buddhist temple?  Now what was that doing here?  I have been to a few Buddhist temples but this is my first one equipped with an organ.  Anyone out there with more examples like this?

So it was 10 AM by the time I got to the fish market.  But I got what I would have gotten probably not much different one hour earlier: a few good photo ops and a sense of the hustle and bustle of a life mostly hidden from modern-day Tokyo.  These fish mongers were out there cutting huge fish with chain saws, wrapping, chopping, packing and shouting.  They were heaping up loads of discarded fish parts, garbage, and packages of fish onto various small dolly carts powered by huge gas cylinders which they then zipped back and forth through the tiny alleys.  And if you were not jumping out of the way, I don’t know what?  They were not impressed by visitors slowing them down and they were far from being polite.  And they were starting to pack up what was not sold into styrofoam containers filled with ice, as time was ticking.  There was water everywhere.  They meant business and they meant fresh.  No displaying of food for hours in the heat of the day surrounded by flies and exposed to germs as I had seen for so many years in other parts of the world where I would travel and where I could only wonder how not everybody would get sick from just eating.  But still, this smelly, loud, chaotic world of the fish market was a world that did not seem to fit into the clean, efficient, septic, ultra-modern world of Tokyo.  It was a curious contrast.  A leftover from the past.

What else could I do that I could do only in Tokyo?  Climb the Eiffel Tower!  I was sort of in the vicinity (that is, by the enormous dimensions of Tokyo).  I have to admit that despite teaching the Eiffel Tower as a key monument in class for over a decade, I never knew that there were two of those towers in the world, identical, until recently. I owed it to myself to check this out.

In 1958 they copied the darn thing.  They called it the Tokyo Tower.  What were they thinking?  By then this was hardly the same pioneering feat of engineering it had been for Eiffel. The Japanese had to add 11 meters to the tower to make it 333 meters instead of the 320 meter the older brother in Paris could show for. Did that prove anything?

Squeezed between the legs of the tower, into the square below the first platform, the Tokyo Tower straddled a three-storied mall with food courts, souvenir shops, beauty parlours, etc. It does not get any worse.  But it takes away all the awe one feels when standing directly beneath the apex of this all iron and steel tower one gets in Paris.  Too bad.  Instead of the Otis elevator which was built in Paris in two stages — to this day you have to switch from one elevator system to the other to get to the top — this tower has a slick glass elevator which zoomed in no time to the top.  And I won’t even make a big deal out of the fact that there is a totally fake “shinto” shrine on the top platform where you can pray to … the tower god?  I did not want to find out.

Admittedly, the views over Tokyo were stunning.  Not the same stunning as you have looking down from the Sears Tower over Chicago, since there is not the same density of skyscrapers surrounding the tower; or from the Eiffel Tower looking over Paris, since there is not the same number of familiar landmarks to spot.  But stunning in the sense that you get a good idea of the city, its layout, and its sprawl.  And you get yet another perspective on how spotlessly clean this city is.  Not a speck of dirt on any roof top.  No back yard or back alley filled with garbage anywhere.  All the roads look like they have been paved yesterday.  How do they do it?!  Still, I felt a keen sense of cultural displacement to find myself on top of the “Eiffel” Tower in Tokyo.  And to top that sense of cultural twist, I had a hamburger at MacDonald’s for lunch at that mall.  And that in Tokyo.  Yikes!

UENO park had one attraction left that I wanted to see and so I hopped onto another subway, back to my stomping grounds from yesterday.  On the way, I took in the small Taito-ku Shitamachi Museum which promised a glimpse into the Tokyo of the 19th century.  Indeed, it held the recreation of a small alley of the Edo period with two houses equipped with all the furnishings of the period as well as a blacksmith’s workshop.  But it was all housed in a square concrete building built in 1980… Another irony.

But my main destination was the villa built by Iwasaki Yatoro, the founder of Mitsubishi.  I love to visit the mansions built by the rich.  They tell you so much about the spirit of the time.  If money is no object, what do you do with it?  Well, Yatoro had an architect named Josiah Condor who built him an estate combining Moorish elements, with Renaissance features, mixed in with Pennsylvania country homes and dominated by the Jacobean style of 17th century England.  And throughout the house you had the most dazzling embossed wall papers sporting flora and fauna all made with what must have been real gold leaf, loosely recalling Viennese Jugendstil.  The billiard house – yes it was a whole separate “man cave” connected to the mansion by a tunnel, was built like a Swiss log house, mountain chalet with a few Gothic features.  When the house needed an extension, a whole Japanese style home was attached seamlessly, in what is known as the Shoin Style. This was impressive alright, but I was getting dizzy from all this cultural mishmash madness.

If this had not been my last day, I would have called it quits at this point, but I am here only once, and so I went on to stroll through Yanaka, one of the few neighbourhoods which was spared by all of the three disasters that struck Tokyo:  the aforementioned fire of 1657, the 1923 earthquake, and finally the bombings of World War II.  This was indeed a Tokyo which I had not seen so far.  Narrow alleys, too small for cars, small homes, some of them still wooden, small shops, tiny gardens, and many temples and shrines.  In the 2 square kilometres which I covered there must have been over 20 of them.  For American standards they were old:  16th and 17th century.  But for Japanese standards, the real jewels are of course the ones from the 6-9th centuries, or perhaps still the ones from the 10th to the 13th centuries.  No reason to get too excited over the 16th or 17th century.

And to round out the theme of cultural incongruities today, by chance, I came by a most unique and amazing studio of the painter Allen West who over 30 years ago came to Japan to study art, after he discovered that the painting methods he thought he had invented all by himself, were closely related to what Japanese artists had done for centuries.  He must have found his calling since he stayed on.  He married a wonderful woman name Mami who was tending the store since he had gone on a trip to Kyoto.  Too bad I missed him.  His art was dazzling, subtle, traditional, yet very personal.  His colour schemes were beautiful.  I spent quite some time there just in awe.  Even if he had taken one zero off all his prices, his work still would have been out of my price range (e.g., a beautiful pair of hanging scrolls for $8000), but it was wonderful to see that this tradition was alive and well and developing.

Just like his counterpart Iwasaki Yatoro, who had built himself a Western Style home incorporating as much as possible of the outside world in his villa, so Allen West incorporated all the Japanese traditions in his work.  And both of them contributed in their unique way to Japan’s cultural fabric as it is today.  And perhaps, even the Eiffel Tower has a place in that world of borrowing, incorporating, and evolving from there.

Good night.

 

2014
05.26

UENO

SYNOPSIS:  What happens when you don’t know what you are doing.  Exploring one of the cultural hot spots in Tokyo.  From Museums to Temples and Shrines.  A few contemplations on oddities, people’s behaviour, and unexpected sites.

Despite my ear plugs and my utter exhaustion, it seemed like I hardly slept a wink.  The bus stopping right below my window, ongoing traffic all night and my body clock which was off still by half a day, did not help.   To get me going, I gulped down a big glass of multi-vitamin juice which I had bought the night before.  I thought it was strange that it was sparkling juice which had a slight fermented taste to it, but it was delicious.  Only when my legs felt heavy and weird five minutes later did it dawned on me that all was not well.  Upon closer inspection of the “juice bottle” it turned out that it was actually a multi-fruit wine concoction…  Upon an empty stomach and a sleepless night I had just heaped “a drink”.  And so I had to start my first day in Japan rather compromised…

If your time in Tokyo is limited — so every guide book and my friend Jose advises — then go to UENO PARK:   http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3019.html   If you want some of the illustrious details of the park’s history, this link will be helpful.

Of particular interest for me was the National Museum.  Indeed, with its five mammoth buildings filled with art, it must rank among the world’s finest museums.  The museum holds so much art that most areas display works on a rotating basis; one masterpiece after another.  It is simply breathtaking.

Thankfully, all displays were marked in both Japanese and English and even for a novice visitor, after going through the highlights of Japanese art displayed in two floors of the Honkan (main gallery)  one gets a good idea of the progression of Japanese history through art.

At 10 AM, the park was already beaming with hundreds of visitors, but most of them seemed to head for the National Zoo.  I hear they have Panda bears there.  So, the National Museum was filled with few enough people to allow for contemplation and quietude.

But that was just the beginning of the park.  It contains an active Buddhist Stupa, at least two Shinto Shrines, various monuments of historic figures, and at least three more major museums which I did not even come close to.   It is situated next to a pond which allows you to see the Tokyo skyline across lotus flowers and reeds.  It is stunningly picturesque.

But as this was my first full day on the streets of Tokyo, I could not help but notice a few things which surprised me:  Did you know that the Japanese drive on the left side of the road?  I am sure you did — but I did not.  Even if you are not driving it really matters as it impacts the way you cross a street.  I almost ran into a bus today…  I will be more mindful from here on out.  I thought the British are typically responsible for this oddity, but then I can’t seem to see the connection between Japan, Britain and driving.  Japan certainly was not a colonized power.  Did they come up with this on their own?   And as there is an answer for everything these days, the British did have something to do with this after all.  Surprise, surprise:  http://www.tofugu.com/2013/02/22/why-does-japan-drive-on-the-left-side-of-the-road/  And as always, things are much more complicated than one would imagine.  And the way we drive influences the way we walk, of course.  Japanese walk on the left side and pass on the right.  For crowd control on stairs, it’s up on the left and down on the right.  You would not believe how often today I caught myself on the wrong side of the matter.  I was grateful to the frequent signs which have been posted just for ignorant foreigners like me…

A large number of Japanese, old and young, wear face masks.  It does not seem to be a fashion poo-poo as even teenagers are doing it and they surely would not go for this if it were considered uncool.  Are they trying to limit breathing in anything bad or are they so considerate trying to limit the spread of what they are breathing out?  This article seems to suggest the latter:  http://www.tofugu.com/2012/06/14/why-do-japanese-people-wear-surgical-masks/

The best picture I got on that front today was a guy smoking a cigarette with his face mask pulled down for the occasion.  I guess, he was not too sick to smoke.  And to top this off, he had positioned himself in front of a pole sporting a sign to ban smoking!  But speaking of smoking — Japanese smoke in restaurants, in parks, and on the streets no matter what the signs are saying.  It has not been overbearing yet, but definitely noticeable for anyone coming from a practically smoke-free country like the USA.

Curiously, some women like to walk around with their umbrellas open even when the weather is nice.  I see the point for an umbrella on a sweltering hot day as cover from the sun, fear of too much UV, etc, but today was not one of those.  Is it fashionable to wear your umbrella?  Woodcuts from the Edo period feature umbrellas and rain more than one is used to from Western art.  But perhaps, there is again more to this than meets the eye?   This article seems to try to relate it to radioactive rain, but there is little to no substance to it:  http://www.japanprobe.com/2012/10/25/alastair-wanklyn-of-the-telegraph-claims-that-japanese-umbrella-use-is-due-to-radiation-fears/

It certainly is amazing to see that when it rained twice during the day today and at night a tornado-like storm broke out, instantly everyone out there was ready with an umbrella, a pretty substantial one, too.  I have one packed myself, of course, but it’s a “mini”.  When in Rome…  Due to this “umbrella culture” you have something I have never seen anywhere in the world:  an umbrella rack.  Just like you park your bike next to the metro, or stow away your backpack in a locker at the museum, you have to park your umbrella in certain areas.  Very funny.

And so, bit by bit, I am diving into the Japanese culture and the Japanese psyche.  My lack of even the most basic Japanese will not make this easy.  But I will try.  Today I learned one word:  Thank you.  So, domo arigato for reading.

Good (hopefully) night.

 

2014
05.25

SYNOPSIS: About a few obstacles before departure and a smooth arrival at a budget hotel in Tokyo.

If one more thing had gone wrong I would have convinced myself that this trip is cursed. Two days before my departure my computer rendered itself unusable. No computer, no blog; no computer, no processing of pictures — I might just as well forget about the whole trip. Of course, I could go without a computer, but half of the point of these trips is the sharing and the collecting of images suitable for teaching. And that takes organization and ongoing maintenance. And these days, that takes a computer.

For years my son had been preaching that I needed a Mac, and so I bought a Mac notebook. But I have never used a Mac and I had no tech support available either. You can paint the picture of me and the computer 48 hours before departure. It is probably that and a few tears on top of it. But I got the main functions going; probably not very efficiently, but who cares?

Then, I locked myself out of my own suitcase with my own lock; one that I had used for multiple trips before…. If it hadn’t been for David, who knows?  After that all went smoothly, but 13 hours cooped up in an airplane is no joke. The last three hours, I had no idea anymore how to sit. My butt seemed to have worn thin.

But then it ended and we arrived at the rainy, drab and dreary Tokyo-Narita airport. Really, it could have been an airport anywhere in the world. Hardly an indication of anything Japanese except for the signs that were all in Japanese first and English and Chinese second and third. The move through customs and immigration was a piece of cake. No advanced visas are required for Japan. No money for the visa either, which is issued within seconds upon arrival.  I am not sure I have seen anything that simple in years.

The subways are clean, well marked, and fast. The countryside could have been anywhere in the world if it had not been for a few miles of rice paddies between Narita and Tokyo and for the peculiarly Chinese (yes Chinese) looking roofs on some of the suburban homes. But it got dark and after the sun beautifully set over the rice fields I could not see much anymore during the 1.5 hour ride into town. One more transfer, another 15 minute walk and I arrived a the Juyoh Hotel.

It’s a 10-storied building and by the hallway I photographed, you may deduce the size of the rooms by the frequency of the doors. But it’s what I need. Privacy, a clean bed and access to a shower. Only three floors have showers though. I wonder what that means in the morning… The view from the rooftop features a distinct tower in the vicinity and lots of highrises, presumably downtown, in the distance. Of course, I will explore all of that tomorrow.

But after a 28 hour day, I will call it a night now.

2014
05.21

New computer – New challenges

I apologize if one or more blog notices came to you…  I am working out the glitches with a new computer.  Bear with me.  Soon, we are rolling!  ET

2014
05.18
UNESCO Sites Japan

UNESCO Sites Japan

WHICH WAY TO TURN?

As much as I love to “wing it” — not to plan ahead — for Japan I caved.  By all accounts the Japanese are avid travelers filling up local hotels fast and historic sites to capacity.  Gone are the days of solitary travel this year.  I am bracing myself for throngs of tourists.  And I am bracing myself for having to follow a schedule.  Between juggling the climbing season of Mount Fuji, a major festival in Kyoto, the need for cheap lodging, and the expiration dates of my railroad passes,  I put together an itinerary which may look haphazard to the casual onlooker.  But believe me,  lots of work went into it and no it’s not perfect.  But hopefully it will work.

For an initial orientation, here are the UNESCO sites which I intend on covering, in addition to some of the most outstanding national treasures Japan has put on its list of protected monuments.  I will land in Tokyo and fly to my most southerly destination, the island of Okinawa.  From there, I will wind my way back up towards Tokyo and then loop North and back.  In Kyoto, one of the most important cities in Japan, I will be staying towards the end.  It is the place which will serve as my buffer — if I fall behind in my schedule, I will have to cut time a bit short in Kyoto.  If I am ahead of time, I can extend my stay there until I need to head back to Tokyo for my scheduled flight.

I will pack my pantheon again:  Bhaisajyaguru, the medicine Buddha who is called Yakushi in Japan and who enjoyed quite a cult revival there.  Ganesh, the Hindu remover of obstacles, and St. Christopher, the Christian Saint of travelers.  And in spirit, Professor Kane will be with me everywhere.  I still hear her voice pronouncing those long, vowel-loaded names of Japanese Temples.  For starters, try these:   Sanjusangendo, Itsukushima, or Dazaifu Tenmangu.  🙂  Fun!

 

 

2014
05.14
Kane Notebook UM 1990

Kane Japan Course Notebook UM 1990

WHERE TO GO? Japan!  Sometimes things come about by a fluke.  This year was going to be Indonesia — but then, there were passport issues and from one day to the next I changed gear.  Why not Japan?  I had put Japan on my travel list years ago, and after ten years perhaps I just needed a break from traveling in the Middle East and from the hardship and heat that I experienced in Mali last year. A country where trains run on time even more reliably than in Germany.  A country with exotic foods and a colorful language.  But most  of all, a country where cultural monuments are so abundant that even 10 weeks won’t allow me to cover them all.   13 cultural UNESCO sites for starters (four more natural ones) and thousands of declared national treasures in between!  A half-forgotten course I took in graduate school in 1990 with my beloved professor Kane on the Arts of Japan made my heart beat faster. It all came back to me: the religions (Shinto and Buddhism) the peculiar Japanese sects (Tendai, Shingon, Zen and Pure Land), the  shogunates, the samurai, the gardens, temples, castles, and scrolls.   In neat cursive and still flawed English I had written it all down.  And I had kept them over all these years — those notebooks from graduate school.  Some day, I knew it — I would go  there and see it all.   In ten days, if all goes well the blog will start (around 5/25).  I hope you will join me!  ET P.S.  If you subscribe to the blog (home page button to your right) you will receive email notifications when new entries are posted.  That will save you time to check.  🙂