2014
08.12

SYNOPSIS:  About some curiosities and the smells and the sounds of Japan which I will remember from this trip.  Good bye, Japan.

 

Any time you come to a new culture you notice things that are done differently.  Some make a lot of sense, others seem odd.  In any case, these are often things you only notice as a stranger as they are so familiar to all who live here.  I have collected a few of those visible curiosities in photographs.  Instead of writing a lot of text, I have labeled each image so you can share in some of the things that struck me.

And any time you travel in a new country, there are smells and sounds that are different either because they are unique to the country (like the pounding of millet in Mali) or just so frequent, that you are more aware of them here than elsewhere.  Some of these will be inextricably linked to Japan and to this trip, for me.  I have listed a few here.

Sounds:  

Ample crossings make distinct sounds for the blind.  They are beeping or chirping, depending on the direction in which you cross.  Not only is this a useful sound, it was also an-all pervasive sound heard all over Japan.

Different, but found everywhere is the warning sound at train crossings.  Especially local trains go right through densely populated areas.  Every few minutes the roads will close at the ringing of bells, for a train to pass.

The whistling sound of the female divers, the ama, which I heard in the Kansai area is unique in the world.

In the mountains, especially of the Chubu area, I heard to-coo-coo everywhere.  That was a sound I had not heard since childhood!

The announcements of merchants advertising their wares is done in a high-pitched nasal way which is both funny and effective as it cuts through the more low pitched muffled sounds of the passing crowd.  But how do they do this for hours?

The bells and the repetitive melodies of the festival in Kyoto will stick with me as it surrounded me nonstop for days.

The sound of coins dropping into the wooden boxes at temples and shrines.

The clacking sound the wooden shoes make that are still worn by Shinto priests and Buddhist monks and less so by kimonoed ladies.

The sound made by wooden clappers I heard in the streets late at night in the Takayama area and a couple more times at odd places.

The ringing of the bell and the clapping of hands made when people approach a Shinto shrine.

The sound of the rain on tiled roofs.

Smells:

Most memorable will be the smell of powdered green tea.

The smell of incense lit at temples and shrines.

The less enjoyable but occasional smell of cigarettes.

Soy sauce.

Most likable for me and unique was the smell of (new) tatami mats.

 

And so I say goodbye to Japan and will keep it in my memories through thousands of images, dozens of sounds and some very distinct smells.

Thanks for traveling with me!

 

2014
08.11

JAPAN SIGNS

It’s just packing, wrapping up some loose ends, and making a final trip to the post office.  So, enjoy the signs I have collected and photographed over the last two months.  Some I took for their content, some for oddities, some for cute spelling mistakes.  I am sure you will figure it out, and hopefully, get a few smiles out of it.

2014
08.10

SYNOPSIS:  About the final shopping trip and a glimpse of the nightlife of Tokyo.

 

There is one rule I would tell anyone who might be listening: when you travel and you see something you like, buy it!  Don’t assume that you can find it later, somewhere else.

It was nearly 70 days ago on my way to Tokyo’s “Eiffel Tower” that I had stopped into a small antique store along the way.  There were beautiful things at what I thought were reasonable prices.  I stood in front of a number of small, wooden and gilded Buddha figures no larger than 10-25 centimeters, that were so delicately carved, that I just marveled at them.  They were of high quality and obviously old.   Why was he not asking for a lot more money?  It was only my second day in the country.  I had no sense of what was around, no idea of what prices were like, and more than two months of travel were ahead of me.  I could not possibly make a major purchase this early on, could I?  Ignoring my own trusty travel advice, I walked away.

More than a month later I still had not seen anything even close to comparable anywhere in Japan.  But I had seen a lot uglier, newer, and a lot more expensive everywhere.   It began to dawn on me that I had made a terrible mistake.

I had taken a card from the shop but it had no email.  The website was all in Japanese…  I finally made a skype call and left a message in English asking for these Buddha figures to be held if they were still around.  Would this message be understood?  Would they hold these figures for over a month?

Yesterday, I went back to the store and there they were, sitting on a special shelf waiting for me.  The owner remembered me well.  We had spoken the first time I had come.  I could not believe my luck!  I asked him why new things were so much more expensive in Japan than old ones — in one of my blogs I had mentioned my suspicion that Japanese in general value new more than old.  He confirmed that only a few treasure the old and often new things cost “one Zero more” than comparable old ones, as he put it.  Well, that is just my luck!    After all those shrine visits, I now can have my own shrine at home and some of my students will see some very special and very Japanese Buddhist figures. 🙂

One area of Tokyo is famous for secondhand bookstores, and one store in particular has a reputation for old maps and ukiyo-e (woodblock) prints.  It wasn’t easy to find but with the help of a few locals I ended up in the most amazing, cram-packed narrow space with shelf after shelf of printed and hand written notebooks from the Edo period and stacks and stacks of woodblock prints.

Thanks Nikko!  I am so glad I bought my ukiyo-e there.  Prices here were about 3 times as high as I had seen before.  If I had relied on getting my woodblock prints here, I would have been out of luck.  But to look through them was a trip to the past which was amazing.  These ukiyo-e show all facets of the human experience and looking at them gives you an amazing sense of what daily life was like, then — from relationships to quarrels, from Sumo wrestlers to kabuki actors, from the frivolous to the mundane, from the pious to the drunkards.   I got so lost that I did not even notice that hours were passing.  This was like a hands-on museum.

What to do for the evening?  In Nikko, I had met two American ladies, one of whom, Lesley, was going to have dinner with me tonight.  Despite three emails to her, I did not hear back.  Something had gone wrong. It’s probably just one missed letter in the email — all it takes in cyber space.  I was quite bummed about that!  Now I was on my own.  I could do the usual $1 noodle dinner in my room, or I could venture out on my own.

Hell, why not?  And why not choose one of the famous themed restaurants that you can only find in Tokyo?  Should we go Sumo, Vampire, Alcatrez, Alice in Wonderland or dare the 10 Million establishment with enough neon lights to supply all of New York, featuring girls dancing with robots?  Looks like there are choices.   I went for the middle of the road and chose the “Ninja” theme.  Ninjas are, after all, historic Japanese assassin figures.

Since I did not have a reservation, I was out of luck.  No table or 1.5 hours of waiting.  I had come this far, so I opted for the latter and decided to roam the neighborhood killing some time. This was obviously food heaven.  Several streets were lined with easily 100 restaurants total.  Most of them, except for the Swedish one which was literally empty, were busy or outright crowded.  I just decided to photograph interesting details, deliberately in a way that they would become an abstract photo essay rather than a representation of a neon-lit restaurant street.  Enjoy.

It is a bit sad to go to a place like this without a companion, but I tried to take it in stride.

They mean business at the Ninja place!  All waiters are dressed up as Ninjas, jump out of hidden doors, know magic tricks (these guys are pros!) and even serve you food with hidden weapons, poisoned leafs, etc.  They unexpectedly burn secret messages — like my desert menu, or make floors disappear as you walk.  The entire establishment is kept in black.  Narrow corridors lead through winding passages into the “Ninja village”,  where there is a total of 27 tables.  I was in an area with a Swiss family to my left and a Brazilian family to my right.  The best part of the night was right after you paid your bill, the “master” ninja would appear and do a full 10-15 minute magic show at your table.  This was mind-boggling.  I watched three of them on the tables around me.  Each was different and each was absolutely professional.  The best thing was that the Brazilian guy gave his performer a 1000 yen note as a tip which that guy transformed instantly before his eyes into a receipt!

Time flew and it was 10 minutes to midnight when I got out of the subway.  Even at this hour, the subway runs every few minutes and is filled with people.  No shady characters, nothing creepy about being out that late.  Except that all of a sudden I remembered that my hostel had a midnight curfew.  There was a pin code which would allow you to enter later, but since I am never out this late I had not even asked for it;  there was only one thing left to do — run.  I made it with a couple of seconds to spare.

Whew.  Let’s have a good final night in Japan.

 

2014
08.09

SYNOPSIS:  About one of the oldest Buddhist shrines and one of the newest mosques in Tokyo.  The end of Ramadan.

 

Already by 9 AM the thermometer had climbed to over 90° Fahrenheit.  Another one of those hot and humid days lay ahead.  I was absolutely not motivated to do anything, and would have been hiding behind my computer all day if not in the early afternoon a much needed thunderstorm cleared the air at least a little bit and at least for a little while.

What to do?  Tokyo is overwhelming in its options and after all the temples and shrines, castles and gardens of historic value, I was not in any mood to do more.  A museum perhaps?  There are dozens around and they are one as good as the other.  An aquarium?  After all, I had missed the one in Osaka.  Another theme park of traditional buildings?  Shopping? …

Carl in one of his recent comment posts had mentioned the Sensoji Temple vandalism incident that happened on June 12, 2014, and since Sensoji is the oldest and one of the most venerated Buddhist Temples in Tokyo, I decided that it would be the event for the day; just one more temple.  I can do it.

A Saudi Arabian Muslim exchange student was mentioned in the Tokyo news to have destroyed four Buddhist sculptures as an act of Jihad.  After his arrest he reportedly admitted to the deed and further to a similar act previously at another temple. A premeditated religiously motivated act of violence.  That is a new one for Japan!

The Sensoji Temple is as impressive as any I have visited.  Two giant red gates and several huge lanterns as well as a five-storied pagoda, and a sizable hall with several side temples, make for an impressive complex.  As usual, none of the monks in attendance spoke enough English or had enough time for me to get a conversation going:  Did it happen?  Are you afraid more will happen?  What is the reaction of the temple?  More security?  None of these questions were answered.

Just across from the temple there is a major Shinto Shrine.  The attendant spoke enough English to understand the incident, but then had never heard of it.  100 meters from it!  “I don’t know what is going on at the temple” was her excuse.

Finally,  there was a local volunteer guide of the sort I had seen all over Japan.  They usually are older people who in retirement brush up their English and then guide foreigners around their town in order to practice it.  These guys are knowledgeable and enthusiastic and usually well informed.  I picked a moment when the guide was waiting for his group to look around and asked him about the incident.  Yes, he had heard of it.  But which temple, he did not know!

The one we are in, I said.  Which sculptures would have been the target?  He did not know.  So I was on my own again.  I made the rounds and came across two areas that had enough evidence to match up with the reported event and the news image: one area is a graveyard behind the temple.  That was not in the news, but several images had very recent and visible “neck repairs”.  And there was a small group of shrines to the side of the temple which looked just like the ones in the news.  Indeed, the images there too showed signs of recent repairs but only if you looked very carefully.

A small group of vendors have stalls right across from this site and I located one who spoke enough English to communicate with me:  Yes, that happened.  But now, it’s all fixed.  End of story.

I am not sure what I expected.  But obviously, this had not been news that was big enough to be known even 100 yards from the incident.  Now what?  I was out and about, finally, and now definitely in the mood to do a bit more sightseeing.

How about a mosque?  Are there even mosques in Japan?

As I found out, there are.  The current count is between 80 and 100 mosques in Japan.  The largest and one of the most impressive mosques in Tokyo is the Turkish-style Camii Mosque associated with the Islamic Cultural Center.  Sounds great!

Criss-crossing Tokyo via subway is a breeze.  The subway system is efficient, tight, speedy, and trains come at a frequency that boggles the mind.  So, distances in Tokyo should not intimidate anyone and an hour can propel you from one end of Tokyo to the next.  And I had time.

I arrived at the Camii around 6 PM.  There obviously was an event going on inside the mosque — I assumed it was the scheduled prayer.  I walked around, took pictures and as I did so, more and more cars filled with Muslims arrived.  Something was cooking.

Many of the new arrivals were foreigners wearing the typical Arabic single piece suit sporting the long unshaven Muslim-style beards.  More and more hijabbed women arrived piling in.  Finally, I asked somebody if it was okay to enter.  Sure.  If I had just prepared for this, I could have come with my own hijab and impressed the locals.  🙂

As it was, I had to borrow a shawl.

Sometimes, I think the travel gods are just pointing their fingers.  This morning I was not even going to leave the house, by night I found myself in the middle of a sizable event at the Camii mosque and before I knew it at a table sitting with the Japanese Muslim community breaking fast over a nice meal at the Cultural Center!   No kidding.   It was the end of Ramadan.  But had I paid attention to that?  Of course not.  I was traveling in a Buddhist and Shinto nation, not in the Middle East!

But this very serendipitous coincidence gave me a chance to get a sense of the Muslim community in Tokyo which I would otherwise not have seen or imagined like this: most attendees of this mosque were foreign-born and had either moved to Japan or were working temporarily in Japan, as were some of the women at my table.  Shams was my main partner talking.  She was a convert of Buddhist parents who had studied in California and converted there into the Sufi branch of Islam.  In the midst of all the activities I was not able to ask a lot of pertinent questions.  But here are a few of them.

Why did you convert?  Did you study a lot about Islam or read up about it before you converted?  No. I just followed my heart.  I wanted to be a Muslim since I was 10 years old.

What about your Buddhist parents?  Do they accept your conversion?  They also converted to Islam just two months ago.

Have you heard about the vandalism incident at Senso Temple in June?  No.

What do you think about the new caliphate and what is going on with ISIS in Iraq and Syria?  Those are not real Muslims.

The implications of some of her answers are startling on many levels.  But I did not challenge her on any of them.  I was a guest and grateful that I could participate in this event and experience a facet of Japan I did not even knew existed.  She was a wonderful person.  I wish I could have met her again.  But her time did not allow it and my time is getting very short.

All of this came about because of one man who with a big smile greeted me after the event in the mosque, a lecture on fasting and body hygiene, was over:  Zachariah from Morocco.  I was ready to just put my shoes on and leave, but he engaged me in conversation and offered me a date — that’s when I realized that it was the time of the breaking of the fast.

We talked about the differences of traveling in the Middle East and traveling in Japan.  There, an invitation for tea or the offering of a date is so commonplace.  Two months in Japan and to the very end I remain a disconnected stranger.  One hour at the mosque and I am invited to dinner and am part of a community.  No wonder that some people who follow their hearts end up here.

Good night.

2014
08.08

SYNOPSIS:  About the neighborhood I live in.  About a Chinese restaurant that won’t serve two foreign ladies, a J.S. Bach cafe, fire works, and a few shady characters.  

 

Tokyo is my final stop.  There are a few more days here and a few more things to do, many of them technicalities — laundry, making sure blog and images are all up to date, copied, archived, labeled, organized; buy all the souvenirs I have not bought so far, meet the lady I met in Nikko, try to catch a Noh play, perhaps, see a few more sights, but then, perhaps not; ship a package or two, get money for China, and so on.

The first day back I spent doing a lot of this and I only ventured out into the immediate neighborhood for one thing or another, to the post office, for example  This blog is about a radius of 500 yards.  By the end of the day I was amazed of all the adventures I had in just this small space.  Who says you need to go far?

If I had to describe the neighborhood I live in with one word, it would be: shady.  This is not your glitzy, modern, fast-paced Tokyo from “Lost in Translation”.  This is an area with a lot of poor-looking people, old men drinking all day, with beer cans in the street (!)  with secondhand clothing shops where I can only wonder who might buy such old worn and out-of-style stuff, with people shouting behind closed doors, and with the famous Lawson Supermarket chain offering its special “100 yen” variation.  That is the equivalent of a dollar store but for a food market.  I think that says it all.

There are lots of “foreigners” living here, meaning Chinese.  There are a lot of the cheapest hotels here, meaning under $30 per night.  There is a lot of nondescript, gray, multi-storied apartment living here, meaning subsidized housing.

Two months ago I had noticed that right across the street from my hotel was a Cafe named J. S. Bach Cafe.  In German it advertised that it had its own coffee roasting business.  I had meant to go there many times, but never managed.  Either it was closed, or I was too busy, or I simply forgot.  Today was the day.   In the early afternoon, instead of brewing my own tea at the hotel, I hopped across the street and ordered some coffee with real German cheesecake.

A few old ladies had gathered around a large table chatting but over their chatter I could hear the music playing, very quietly — J. S. Bach organ music!  Inadvertently  I reminisced about my dad who had been an organist in Germany playing most likely through the whole Bach repertoire at one time in his life or another.  I reminisced about the trip I took with him, turning pages while he was on tour giving organ concerts.  And as I pondered his life and his very untimely death at the age of 56, it dawned on me that it was his birthday!  Can you just believe this?!  I could not have ended up at a better place at a better day.  The travel gods are pointing their fingers.

My hotel is a cool place, despite the questionable neighborhood.  It’s a hotel but with a hostel flair.  A young, English speaking, laid back staff and a colorful mix of independent travelers from all over the world come together creating a good atmosphere.  There is a lobby, and if you sit there long enough you will surely meet some interesting people.

It was a special day today: Fireworks!  Now if you look all over Japan and even just around in Tokyo, there is probably a fireworks display every weekend in July and perhaps even August.  It is still great fun and today was a “big one”.  The staff had food prepared and the roof terrace was open for the fireworks party.  We had a fantastic view of the display.  I have an inadequate camera to take good fireworks pictures.  Many of the young people with their i-pods fared much better than I did.  But even without great photos to show, it was good fun to watch.  It was here that I met Grazia from Italy.

We immediately hit it off and sat together, watching the spectacle, chatting.  Afterwards we ventured out for a beer.  The nearest corner that looked promising had a menu posted and a venue at the main floor as well as on the upper floor.  We headed up, entering a dimly lit room with a bar.  Great.

A Chinese waitress practically jumped at us and out of her mouth flowed a whole ball of words:  You can’t eat here.  I don’t speak English.  You need to leave.  Huh?  We had not even said a word yet.  We did not want to eat and she obviously spoke more English than most people I had met in two months who claimed they did.  We assured her that we did not need her to talk to us, all we wanted was to sit down and have a beer.  There is only wine and I don’t speak English.  Ok, wine then.  Now she practically became hysterical and it was clear that there was only one thing she wanted: to get rid of us.

We left.  I am sure there was a mysterious, untold rule behind all of this.  The next day I studied the sign at the door more carefully and saw a woman on the billboard with ever so slightly exposed boobs.  The house was pink.  Should we have noticed or known something here that was obvious to all but us?  For all we can speculate, we stumbled on a secret meeting place of the Chinese mafia or a child-pornography ring, or a love hotel.  We shall never know.  But that waitress did speak English!

Downstairs then.  We entered a small dining room with a foreign couple having beer and food.  We were in the right place now.  A couple of Japanese men sat at two other tables, both of them obviously drunk.  A stoic looking Chinese waitress served.   One of the men started to give us funny (and uncomfortable) looks.  Thankfully, he soon was ushered out by the waitress, who refused to serve him any more liquor.  The other man soon got into trouble grabbing the waitress’s hand.  Without as much as a muscle in her face twitching she slapped him in his face with her other hand.  That put him into his place.  He let go.  Boy, it was getting warm in here!

We were no more than 5 minutes into our conversation and our beer when a short, foul-toothed middle-aged man entered who asked the waitress for something.  She hesitated but after he practically begged her she came out with a box.  Before we knew it a full-blown Karaoke session was under way with this guy bellowing it out.  He had an amazing voice, but with the mic at full blast and the entire establishment measuring no more than five tables, he made the windows shake!  We applauded him and I tried to plead with him not to use the mic — to no avail.

We could hardly prevent him from buying us beer.  He was unstoppable with his singing and before long started to accompany the singing with wild dancing.  Meanwhile… the rude drunkard had found a place on the floor and had gone to sleep.  No matter how much the waitress slapped him, he was not budging!

The foreign couple had left.  We were left with now three weird guys and a stoic waitress.  The scene could have come from a Twilight Zone episode.

It was time to leave.  It was nearly midnight.

At least I know now what I have been missing out on.

Good night.

2014
08.07

SYNOPSIS:   About a faux pas in transit.  About the JR rail pass.  About really fast trains.  About looking up (roofs) and looking down (bows).  All the images are details of roofs in Japan.  Just enjoy.

It was actually during the last trip from Osaka to Tokyo that I almost got myself into real trouble getting on one of those very, very fast trains that my rail pass does not cover…  But I ran out of time to write about it then. And it looks like, I still have not found time to write about it…  I am so sorry.  I am really swamped right now.

I also have been wanting to write about bowing in Japan.  It’s everywhere — I mean everywhere.

And as much as people look down (while bowing), you should not forget to look up, a lot, in Japan to see the amazing care that has been put in creating roofs.  I photographed them everywhere.  From palace roofs to temple roofs, to middle class neighborhood roofs.  I hope you will enjoy some of the more fancy roof details.   I wish we could at least get tiled roofs in the States!

Got to run!

 

 

2014
08.06

SYNOPSIS:  About “the big one”.  About copying a sutra, swimming in the ocean, splurging on a Kassler in a German restaurant, and meeting Karla.

 

What makes this day different from all the other days?

It is the last day of a 2-month cultural and spiritual journey.   It is the climax of an exploration into Japanese culture.  It is the end of a trip retracing the lessons learned by Professor Kane some 25 years ago.  But as all trips of this nature go, it is also an exploration into oneself and therefore an investment into the future.

Yeah, there is still Tokyo.  But that does not count.

The Daibutsu was one way to mark this event.  Unlike all the other giant Buddhas, most comparable the Roshana Buddha at the Todaiji in Nara, this Buddha sits without its hall in the open.  The hall was blown away twice by typhoons and people finally gave up on it.  Who needs it?  As a seated 11.5 meter, 850 ton bronze figure, he is enormous.  No typhoon can do him harm.  He is another one of those Amida Buddhas who presides over the Western paradise instructing all sentient beings in the truth, leading them in their way towards enlightenment.  But if you look, he seems to just sit there, tranquil, lost in thought, way, way, too removed to notice any of us tiny human beings.   He is awesome.

What is even more awesome is that for a mere 20 cents you can enter the Buddha and look at him from the inside!  You see the seams, the various bronze-making techniques, the funny windows leading out of his back.  You gain a whole new perspective on this tranquil Buddha as a piece of hard work, the result of ingenious engineering.

Perhaps, I should not rely on him too much for enlightenment.  What now?

Carl dared to crawl through the pillar at Todaiji representing the size of the nostril of the Roshana Buddha to gain enlightenment.  I was way too afraid to get stuck there.  But I wanted to try something, at least something symbolic like this to mark the day.  But what?

I had heard of copying a sutra.  Devout Buddhists do this as an act of karma.  And more so, here in Japan, sutras are copied and then left with the deity at the temple to be burned by the priests in special fire ceremonies.  I had witnessed one of those rituals at Koyasan.  Most temples only have those ceremonies once a month or as little as once a year.  All those wooden sticks that have been left inscribed with wishes; all the votive tablets each shrine cell, that have been pinned on those temple “bulletin boards” will get burned to make your wish come through.  I was gonna copy a sutra, but…  no way was I going to leave it at the temple.  Come on.  After all that work?!

Hase Dera, the second temple I had saved for last, offered sutra copying.  For starters, it was a lovely and interesting temple to visit.  One of the revered deities was represented carved in stone in a cave and visitors had to walk, back bent down, through a dripping wet tunnel to appreciate her.  It felt really nice given the humidity and the heat outside.

The temple was situated against the hillside at the end of the ocean front of Kamakura, allowing for great views across town top down.  And it had some lovely, ancient, large-scale Buddhist figures in its various image halls that definitely should not be missed.

Nobody else was there when I inquired about sutra copying.  I was led into a room with a small Amida altar — no photography! — and 24 single table-chair sets covered with black velvet that you might find (save the velvet) in old school rooms.  I could choose from a variety of brushes.  I opted for one that was fueled by an ink capsule rather than one of the old-fashioned ones I would have to dip into an ink well — I am a novice here, after all!  And then I went to work.

They make this easy, of course; that is, relatively speaking.  For someone without any knowledge of Chinese or Japanese characters this was still a chore and I spent a good 45 minutes at the shortest sutra I could have chosen.  But it was fun.  It was quiet, introspected fun.  I retraced every stroke of all the characters and I decided to do this in all seriousness — not knowing a syllable of what I was writing.  But somewhere in there, was the nembutsu, that was for sure.  And with a sutra you can’t go wrong, really (which can’t be said for all other religious texts).

I hope Amida will appreciate the thought; as he well knows, when I was finished, I did not leave the sutra, but pocketed it as a souvenir.  But I felt good about this little act of … making this day special.  There is something to be said about ritual, mindfulness, setting things above the ordinary.

This was the spiritual part of that.

Now, on to the human world: the ocean was right in front of me.  For two months I had never been far from it, but there were temples to be visited and shrines and blogs to be written and photographs to be sorted.  Today, I was going swimming.

I did not know what to expect.  There were a few surfers, many sun bathers, many youngsters hanging out.  I just piled up my clothes at the beach trusting that nothing got stolen, put on my bathing suit and went in — wow!  The water was so much warmer than my little lake in Michigan when I had left it in May.  This was heavenly.  I swam out way farther than anyone else, riding the wavies, and thankfully nobody cared.  You never know in Japan — there might be a rule about swimming just so far…

The swim became just one more way of … making this day special.  It was an act of meditation all by itself holding up to viewing “the big one” and copying the sutra.  I was glad that I had saved this for last — if I had realized how much fun at the beach I was missing, I might have skipped a few temples.

And to put the dot over the “i” or if you prefer to put the icing on the cake, I did not reach for another one of my one-dollar noodle dishes, but put on my nice clothes for a dinner out at the German restaurant.  After all this cultural immersion it was not a bad idea to visit my roots.  But as things go — I had seen the restaurant on the first evening in town.  Tonight, I was circling around it, missing it, walking up and down alleys knowing I had been here, knowing I was close but almost had to give up.  But after a full hour of searching no more than four city blocks up and down I found it.  It was a small, dimly lit place.  The woman was just about to close!  5 minutes before 8 PM.  We close at 8, she said…  I almost left, but she assured me that as long as I had the order in by 8 I would be served.  Rules, remember.  The Germans and the Japanese have that one down.

Rouladen…  I asked, but I knew she would say no.  It is an involved dish.  Okay, Kassler then and Sauerkraut and potato salad.  I was the only one left in the dining room. A sign on the wall congratulated and thanked the restaurant for its 57th year in business!  Wow, that is about my age.

The woman turned out to be one of the original owners running the business with her two brothers.  After I finished eating, we started to chat.  She sat down with me, and in perfect German — even though she had left Germany 57 years ago, she told me her story.  For five generations her family had been associated with Japan.  Her father and grandfather were diplomats.  After the war they got out of Berlin on the last train before the Russians came in and eventually relocated to Japan.  She had married an American who at one point “just left; had to go back to the States”.  So she raised her only daughter by herself.  “This restaurant and my brothers are my family now”.

She was this really kind, gray-haired grandmother type, bent over already and way into her seventies.  Business is not going too well any more.  After they are done — that is, she and her two brothers — there won’t be anyone taking over.  Too much work for too little in return.  For her it was her life.  But for the next generation the restaurant would just be shackles.

She was an expat like myself.  I thanked her for sitting down with me and told her how much it meant to me to have met her today.  She did put the dot on the i — and … was the final element that made this day very special.

Good night.

2014
08.05

SYNOPSIS:  About buddhas, bakeries and beaches.  About teenagers, trash and tramps.  About a resort town with a history.

 

Kamakura is not (yet) on the UNESCO list of sites.  It’s desperately trying though, as one big billboard in town indicated.  At least for the “big boy”, the largest Bronze Buddha in the world, it might make it someday and if not, it has itself assured a certain spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for times immortal.

When I planned my Japan trip around the UNESCO sites, a bit in a hurry, I realized at the last moment that I had forgotten to leave room for Kamakura.  I actually had to go back and shave off three days of Kyoto to fit it in.  What an oversight!

I will be here for two full days and I decided to savor “the big one” for the last day.  Today, I ventured north, into the foothills of the mountains which once had been a reason for Kamakura to be chosen as the first capital of feudal Japan between 1185 to 1333.  Just like Nara and Kyoto which followed, Kamakura owes its cultural splendor to its role as capital.  It had and has a lot going for itself.  There are mountains on three sides and the ocean on the other.  That makes for an easily defensible city, which must have been on Minamoto Yoritomo’s mind when he moved here.

By the time Kyoto became the long-term capital in the Edo period, Kamakura dwindled to a mere village.  But in recent times and with fast and convenient transportation from and to Tokyo, this village is thriving again, this time as a sea port/resort town.  The climate is mild, the beaches vast, the ocean fantastic, and the old temples in town give it a great, traditional flair.

This accounts for a curious mix of yachts, beach bars, partying teenagers, skimpily-clad, high heeled girls, red-skirt shinto priestesses, show-off surfers, monks on bicycles, macho motor-cyclists, dread-locked hippies, disheveled tramps, fancy boutiques, eco-conscious architecture, vegan restaurants, and you name it.  And yes, … for the first time in Japan — trash.  When all is quiet at night, there is a considerable amount of trash, empty beer cans, plastic bags — still nothing compared to what it would be in any other beach-party town around the world, but noticeable.

I can’t hold it against the Japanese though.  I was told that a lot of the unruly behavior goes back to vacationing Chinese and other Asian (and European?) visitors.  And as embarrassing as it is, but I can’t tell them apart.  Speaking of Europeans: as anywhere so far, Europeans account for only a minuscule number of tourists.  There is the occasional tour bus, of course, that comes for “the big one”, but those travelers won’t ever stay in Kamakura.  This town, as Nara or Nikko, is typically done as a day trip.

My guest house is the second floor of a small house which was converted by the owner’s son, who still lives with his parents at the main floor.  It is located only three minutes from the beach along the main artery in town.  I got all those motor bikes and drunken teenagers right below my little balcony on which I have spent many hours writing in the last two days.  I still have to catch up with the blog and some images…

For me, this town will be the final stop on my spiritual road through Japan.  It is perfect to walk everywhere, to slow down, to reflect in the evenings, while sitting at an ocean bar sipping a Tequila.  On my first stroll through town I could not believe to walk by a German restaurant, a Baeckerei und Konditorei  (a real German bakery!), a Thai food store, a Chinese restaurant, a French patisserie.  As small as this place is, it is obviously very cosmopolitan in its own little way (not like Tokyo or Osaka, of course).

But there were a few sites to be visited:

The Engakuji, is the most northern of the noteworthy temples.  It has one of the largest bells and gates in town and it was my first stop after a leisure morning at the hostel.  There was a lot going on, including a whole huge group attending a private sermon.  It is quite common at these temples to pay for your private sermons.  I have seen two to four people attending a five minute private session ranging from the full gamut of chants, bell, speech, to blessing involving several monks, or just a simple one-monk blessing ceremony.  Here, there were more people attending than fit into the lecture hall, a sermon perhaps after a funeral, for a family reunion, etc.  It is hard to tell.  Aside the main temple halls, there were wooded living quarters for the monk, a memorial hall and even a lovely tea house.

In one corner, hardly visible and impossible to photograph, an interesting scene unfolded.  A monk practiced some sort of Zen archery.  Every movement was as stylized as in the tea ceremony.  It took him up to a minute between moves and he seemed completely oblivious to the fact that two foreigners had caught up with him and were secretly watching.

Nearby is the Tokeiji, a small temple with an unusual history.  It was founded by Kakuzan Shidoni, the widow of a shogun who then provided an exclusive refuge for women.  Women at the time could not divorce abusive husbands.  After three years in the nunnery however, by the temple authority, wives could force husbands to grant a divorce.  For hundreds of years, this temple was famous and notorious as it empowered women and stripped men of their absolute power and pride.  As divorce law become civil law around 1870, the temple lost its function and today is a mere sub-temple of the Engakuji.    A lovely flower garden and a mossy graveyard are the most attractive features of this small temple and I wonder how much of that goes back to the women living there.

The main temple in town is the Kenchoji.  It is the oldest Zen monastery in Japan and active to this day, with dozens of monks living here, giving instructions in Zen meditation and performing other functions.  The buildings are impressive with a large gate and some of the most gnarly, 700 year old  juniper trees I have seen anywhere and a beautiful, green, viewing garden where I had a lovely chat with an American couple who have been living in Japan for over four years.  “What’s there not to like about this country?” was the sum of their assessment of Japan.

Across from it an even smaller temple than the Tokeiji, the Ennoji houses a most unusual set of sculptures:  the ten judges of hell.  With grim faces they surround the most grim of them all, Emma (or Yama in Sanskrit), the lord of the inferno.  This is another example of cultural mixture as the concept of the judges is one adopted from Taoism, whereas Yama is a Hindu deity.  And now they are all found in a Buddhist temple…  But they are worth the stop especially if you are in need of a good nightmare.

No temple day is complete without a visit to at least one shrine.  That’s where the Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu comes in handy.  Steep stairs lead up from an impressive stage to a set of inner shrine buildings, some of which house shrine artifacts and some of the temple floats used in the local matsuri.  The entire temple has gotten a recent paint makeover and is shining in bright colors, making a lot of small animal and plant details explicit.

After four shrines and one temple it looks almost like I was on a grueling Kyoto schedule again, but then, here is the difference — in Kyoto I would have had to take the bus from one temple to the next and a round like this would have taken between 8-10 hours.  Here, I walked it all, enjoyed the day, had ice cream along the way, a late start (10 AM) and an early finish (3 PM).  There was energy left even for a little shopping trip, and time to spare to head for that tequila at the beach bar before going home and writing about the day.  My kind of a town!

Good night.

2014
08.04

SYNOPSIS:  About a curious, wide-spread Japanese phenomenon.

 

Thanks to Carl who mentioned early on that I should pay attention to the manholes in Japan, I did.  I can’t add anything about the history or origins of the unique and artistic manholes that is not mentioned in the article I am posting below.  Nobody with half an eye could miss the colorful variations of the manholes in Japan after walking around for a bit.  But I know it would have taken me much longer to catch up on this unique phenomenon if Carl had not alerted me to this.  Thanks!  So, I went through Japan always mindful of manholes and I got a few good ones.  Of course, the examples in the article are a lot better than mine. To do these critters justice one should have a consistently elevated view and wait for the sun.  At times I did not, as I did not always have my wide-angled lens with me and I was traveling in the rainy season and a few of those examples are wet.  I also was not sure if I preferred the colored versions of the more pure, iron ones.  Each city usually has both.  The painting schemes are consistent but seem to be done by hand.  I am not sure, but I am giving you a whole slew of all I found.  Enjoy.  Curiously absent were any examples of note in Kyoto.  Did Kyoto not catch on to this trend?

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/03/the-beauty-of-japans-artistic-manhole-covers/

Otherwise, this day was spent as uneventful in transit as these travel days go.

I have now reached the final destination of this trip, going right back to where I started:  Tokyo.

Good night.

2014
08.03

SYNOPSIS:  About my luck in meeting Rica.  Osaka lunch, Osaka shopping, Osaka viewing.  Two eras, two towers.

 

Two days ago I had stood rather forlorn at the exit of a subway station at the outskirts of Osaka, an unlikely place to be frequented by foreign visitors.  I had an inadequate map and nothing much else to go by to locate my new hotel.  “May I help you?” an accent-free voice asked in English.

It was Rica.  She had never heard of the “Four Leaves Hotel” either, but offered to walk with me to help me find it.  It was only a short two blocks from the station and we kept chatting a bit more right in front of the hotel.  There was something immediately likable about her, aside from being a woman and about my age.  I was so starved for talking to a real Japanese that without much thinking I asked if she would be willing to meet again for a cup of tea.  The poor woman!  She helped a stranger, OK, but now she got sucked into meeting me again.  I know how busy most Japanese are and how precious their free time is.  How could I have done this?  Afterwards, I felt quite horrible for having made such an imposition, but it was too late.

Rica agreed and we arranged for a place near a centrally located subway to meet for lunch today.  Rica found a Chinese place which served Osaka’s local specialties.  We chatted and then walked around one of the shopping streets catering to restaurants.  From plastic food to huge pots, from store signs to lacquer bowls, sign posts and napkins, you could find anything here.  I had such a good time with Rica.

Unlike my interview with Kazu in Nara where I had the computer on my lap while talking to him, my conversation with Rica was a lot more informal, and is much harder to summarize.  But two questions I asked both of them:  What do you like best and what do you like the least about Japan —  came out quite differently, and I think quite gender specific.  Rica loves that Japan is so safe.  There is no crime to speak of (not to say that there is none at all).  Especially for a woman it is safe to go out at any time day or night.  Rica does not like (as most women I think, would not) that Japanese don’t say what they think, but keep it all in.  Rica also had very different experiences with people who are using and abusing the government’s welfare system.  It sounded a lot like some abuse going on in the States.  I was so lucky, that it was Rica’s day off from work.  I cannot thank her enough for spending some of her precious time with me!

Osaka is almost a poverty-stricken town culturally speaking, if you compare it with Tokyo or Kyoto.  There is a castle which I was definitely not going to visit — all remade out of concrete.  And there is the aquarium which I would have visited if I had more time.

There are two towers I was curious about:  One, an older 1956 iron tower, once the glitz of the neighborhood, now a mere retro-experience, the Tsutenkaku, literally meaning “reaching to heaven”.  OK, at 63 meters, this is an overstatement but at least it managed to be the second-largest one in Asia for a while.  It was fun, but nothing special to go up, look around, get a sense of the town.  More interesting would have been to see the original structure at the site dating from 1912 which was another one modeled after the Eiffel tower.  But it burned down in a fire in 1943.

There is a Billiken craze going on at the tower — people take their picture with the Billiken, rub his feet, throw coins into his box as if he were a Shinto god.  There go the Japanese again, I thought to myself, until I learned that this is an American idol that was imported into Japan?  There goes my popular culture ignorance again!  Billiken?  Never heard of him.  Have you?

The other tower I had pictured completely differently.  It was advertised as the epitome of modern architecture.  Hiroshi Hara, a well-known Japanese architect, sounded promising.  I had seen his amazing railroad station in Kyoto.  But when I approached the famed Umeda Sky-Building it looked like a boring square high rise and I almost turned around.  I had trekked out here all the way for this?  It was getting dark, I was tired…

But I pushed on in the heat, across the plaza, through the underground tunnel and when I had reached the building I realized that it was a twin complex with a circular connection at the very top, a doughnut floating in the air.  Well, that was definitely more than a box and worth seeing.  Most likely, it has an even more powerful effect during the day.  Up I went.  By then it was dark.  I enjoyed the night views over Osaka, but my photographs don’t do this tower any justice.  If you care, check out some beautiful images online.

It’s a romantic spot where couple sit in little love-seat cubicles gazing across town.  You can also take your picture in a fluorescent-lit courtyard.  If you sit there as a couple just right, hold hands and push a button, fluorescent hearts will be displayed!  Did I ever mention that Japanese like cute?  No Billiken craze here, but plenty of heart kitsch and shlock to buy at the ever-prevalent souvenir shops.   No place in Japan, not even mount Fuji or holy Koyasan seems to be spared by them.  That’s the essence of this country.

As the Tsutenkaku seems like the symbol of the last century, now located in a rather rundown and neglected part of town, so is the Umeda Sky Building the symbol of the future, situated in the center of the new cosmopolitan, commercial district of Osaka.  I could not escape a certain feeling of melancholy while observing the passing of time as it manifests itself in these two towers, especially, since I am just about as old as the Tsutenkaku…

And so went another day in Japan.

Good night.