Monday, July 23, 2007

Hello from Japan

We're now formally under way on our year-and-a-half odyssey. Jeff retired at the end of May and Louise at the beginning of July, and for 6 weeks we both had more than full-time employment getting organized for our journey. So far, everything seems to have gone well, and we made it to our first destination with the correct luggage. No small feat, since things had to go in three directions, with more mixing-and-matching yet to come.

Our first stop is Japan, and for the first week, Tokyo. We had a smooth trip here, even with a fully-packed airplane (NWA was offering $750 to take a later flight!). That's nothing compared to the fully-packed trains we've since encountered, but more about that later.

We had purchased a Japan Rail Pass in Seattle (no biking on this leg of the trip), but you have to actually be in Japan to reserve the trains you want. Amazingly, we got every booking we needed to match the ryokan reservations we have. That was a huge relief. We then navigated the train system to Shinagawa Station and Jeff's son Matt actually found us, and his fiancee Akiko somehow managed to find a place to park her car for a quick pickup and drive to Matt's neighborhood and a Japanese meal at -- Denny's! Yup, same chain, but just try getting hiyashi chuuka east of the Pacific. Same colorful menu with lots of photos of the food, but little is the same on the menu but the logo, the coffee and the Coca Cola.

Matt has an extremely pleasant apartment in Kawasaki, just south of the Tokyo city limits. Other than crossing a wide river, the Tama, you'd never think you'd left the city limits of anyplace -- it's all still megalopolis. His place is close to what an American would call 2BR +den, and has a nice patio on the ground level, with a privacy hedge that is quite effective. For the most part it looks much like an attractive new American flat, but it did have one thing that confounded me. For the first time since I was 2, I needed instruction on how to use the toilet. It had brightly colored, lit-up buttons glowing at me, with Kanji characters, none of them saying "push this one to flush." It fact, none of them says that in Japanese either. Push one of 'em and you've experienced what may be your first electrified bidet, complete with three choices of spray pattern. Push another button and you get a "bun warmer," so to speak. Behind the toilet is a sink. Push a lever below the sink and (1) the toilet flushes, (2) water comes out of the spout into the sink, for hand-washing, and (3) the water drains from the sink to refill the toilet. It all makes good Japanese sense.

We've now had 5 days of sightseeing, 2 on our own in various parts of Tokyo, 1 day with Matt in Kamakura and 2 days with Matt and Akiko in the Hakone area. Here are a few highlights and observations:

There are a LOT of trains in Tokyo, with a LOT of people on them at almost all hours of the day. There are train lines everywhere, mostly running on the surface, PLUS subways. It would be extremely hard to draw a 2 km line anywhere in Tokyo that did not intersect a railroad or subway, no matter which way you turned your line. Complicating matters is that many different companies own these lines. Fortunately, they've collaborated on installing a card you can use interchangeably. If you forget that it's real money flying off that card every time you blink, it's great. Regular commuters like Matt can get somewhat reasonable deals, but for folks like us, it costs several dollars to get from Kawasaki to points around Tokyo. Trains come every few minutes, with the time and track number for each train easy to figure out, as they alternate flashing in Japanese and English. This is a huge change from Louise's last time in Japan 13 years ago, when one or two printed signs might have an English translation for the station name, if you could find them. In fact, there is quite a bit of English everywhere, and also widespread use of icons on signs and buttons, so Jeff has not had to bother Japanese-speaking Louise too much to figure things out.

Out here and in Louise's old neighborhood of Jiyugaoka, the streets are extremely narrow. In fact, you look at your map saying there should be a street at such-and-such a spot, and all you see is an alley. Nope, it's a street. In fact, a two-way street.
If two cars want to go in opposite directions, one of them looks for a place to pull over for the other to get by, or one of them ends up backing down the street 'til a cross-street provides a place to make room. While cars that Americans would think of as small are here, there are also a lot of far smaller cars that are about 2/3 width, 2/3 length and short enough that 6' 4" Jeff wonders if his knees would be at eye level if he tried to drive one. We got on a shrunken bus in Hakone. Going across one row there were two seats, a very narrow aisle, and one seat. Tucked up along the aisle was a folding seat, so they can fill the last row, then fold down a seat in the next-to-last row and fill it with four, then repeat the process and get a real crowd in there with no wasted space!

Finding food and drink has never been a problem. There are vending machines everywhere. EVERYWHERE! Every temple and shrine has them near the entrance. There are spots in the middle of city parks with vending machines. They're outside every corner store we've seen. We were on a hike in a rugged part of Kamakura, 1 hour by train south of Kawasaki and then 1 hour of hiking up from the train station, and there were TWO vending machines at a small trailhead parking area. Restaurants are equally ubiquitous, and almost always quite small. Thai Tom's in the University District in Seattle would be completely normal here. The food has been quite good and quite varied. Perhaps we'll say more in a later blog.

When in Japan, you visit temples (Buddhist) and shrines (Shinto), and we've been to many. It's hard to comprehend how old some of them are. We've also toured a garden on Tokyo Bay that was once set aside for the Shogun, taken a water taxi up the Sumida River in central Tokyo, and experienced the crowds surging through the Shibuya area like a great river meeting the ocean.

Kamakura was a quieter time. We got off at Kita-Kamakura, a small train stop, and visited an extensive temple near the station, with tea and a glass-noodle snack at a tea house overlooking a densely forested valley. After lunch in a small cafe we hiked up and up into that dense forest on a "hiking course" with a number of other adventuresome types, stopping at a shrine cut into the limestone hills that you approached through a hand-cut tunnel. The deal at this shrine was money-laundering. Not as in criminal enterprise, but as in putting your money in a sort of colander and rinsing it with water from the spring that rises out of the rocks here. The idea is that you then spend the money, and it comes back to you. The legends don't exactly explain how or when, but that didn't stop lots of people, including grown people in business attire as well as kids and gullible gaijin (foreigners). And not just coins -- one fellow in his late 20's was washing the Japanese equivalent of $500 bills!

When we descended from the ridge-top, we came to Daibutsu, the second-largest Buddha in Japan. He is one big guy, about 40' tall. He is out in the open. He used to be inside a wooden building, but a tsunami washed up the hill in the 1300s or so. I couldn't get a figure as to how far, but Daibutsu appears to be about 1 km from the ocean and at least 50 m above sea level! They never rebuilt the building. Ever looking for a way to part you from your supply of yen, the temple folks are willing to charge you 20 more of them (16 cents) beyond the 300 yen ($2.50) admission fee to scrunch down a low opening and into the hollow center. We decided we didn't really need to see Buddha's insides.

Now this would have been a pretty good day, but we were on a roll, so we took the Enoden train line to Enoshima. This is an old single-track train that hugs the shore and goes through several tunnels, with every third or fourth station having a platform in the center so trains can pass each other going opposite directions. When we got off we walked down a wide sidewalk (a rarity in Japan) alongside a causeway to Enoshima, or "Eno Island." There appears to be no level spot on this round island roughly 1 1/2 km across. Up, up, up on a street past restaurants and tourist shops, then on stairs past a shrine, then on a narrow road cut into the hillside, then on stairs once again lined with restaurants. Finally down steep stone steps to come out on rock ledges being pounded by surf, with tide pools containing tiny fish and crabs. Back at the top Matt and Jeff pointed at two squid on sticks, which then got grilled on a kerosene burner and served with soy sauce. Just a little snack, Japanese style.

We ended our day trip with dinner at a yakitori shop, maybe 15 seats around the chef, who served up skewers of whatever you ordered, which Matt made sure included grilled chicken cartilege (breast bone). Just a tad too crunchy for Louise and Jeff, thank you. Initiative 901 has most definitely not made it to Japan. Every now and then a customer would light up a cigarette, and even the chef had two or three during the time we sat there. Quaint in a Sam Spade kind of way, we suppose. As near as we could tell, he kept the cigarette ashes out of the food -- or at least out of our food. Then back on the train to Kawasaki. By the time we walked home from the train station, we had 15 miles registering on our pedometers.

Our latest adventure was a 2-day trip to Hakone. This is near Mount Fuji (or Fuji-san to the Japanese), and it has lots of hot springs supporting numerous
onsen, or hot springs establishments. Our ryokan (inn) featured about 7 different onsen, with one always for women and the others set aside for women from 5 am to 1 pm and men from 1:30 to midnight, or vice-versa. We tried out two of the outdoors ones, the boys in one that was about 43 C and the girls in one that turned out to be a very warm 45 C (113 F!) in the evening, and vice-versa in the morning.

Breakfast at the ryokan was one of the most extensive buffets any of us has seen. Three kinds of little fish, two of raw fish, fish balls, 4 kinds of vegetable stir-fry, half a dozen types of pickled vegetables and fruits, chicken teriyaki, noodles of several types, rice, and even one hot plate of scrambled eggs and sausage for the unadventurous. Quite a start to the day! Next was a 1 km walk down the narrow road from the ryokan to town along a noisy river, to board a narrow guage train line up into the hills. It was as steep an incline as Jeff has ever seen on a railroad that did not use cogs to get up a hill. Being narrow guage, it made impossibly tight turns around bluffs as it jumped from tunnel to tunnel, then it did three switch-backs: it pulled into a dead-end siding, waited for another train to descend the single track line to an adjacent track at the siding, then it reversed direction and climbed backwards further up the hill. We were in the front of the train for a while, then at the rear, then at the front again, then at the rear as the train climbed zig-zag up the mountain.

Now in Colorado or some place you might find a train like this, you'd be in the middle of a rocky, uninhabited place. Here, we were in a dense cedar and pine forest with little towns (and tiny two-car-long train stations) every 1 or 2 km. The train stopped at Tozan, about 1600 feet above sea level. Next we transferred to what they called a "cable car," meaning a train with a cable attached to the upper end that pulls it up or eases it down the mountain. That got us up to about 2000' where we moved over to a "ropeway," or gondola. By this time we were in the clouds, and unfortunately did not get a view except of nearby trees. Going over a deep ravine, all we saw were the clouds and the cable above us. When we reached the summit at 3200 feet above sea level, we walked past signs warning us about the sulfur gases that were not good for someone "with a bad constitution." A hike of a few hundred yard through the mist brought us to boiling cauldrons of grey, milky water, and -- of course -- hard boiled black eggs. There was a special gondola that brought metal racks of chicken eggs up to a building next to this spot. Someone would then walk a rack containing a few dozen eggs over to the cauldron and lower it in, then haul it out some while later. Because of the minerals in the hot spring, the eggs were charcoal black in color. The folks at the stand then sell you a half-dozen eggs for 500 yen ($4.25), right next to the sign that tells you that eating just one of these black eggs extends your life 7 years. They were doing a good business. And Louise and I added another 21 years on.

Now the descent. Back on a gondola down the far side of the mountain we've just ascended, to Ashinoko ("the lake of Ashi"), where -- of course -- there is a pirate boat waiting to take us to the other end of the lake. It's Disney-like kitsch at its finest. At Hakone Machi where we disembarked, however, we did a complete flip from kitsch to real history. This is where the Tokaido highway came through the mountains, the busy road that linked the imperial capital of Kyoto with the administrative capital of Edo (now Tokyo). There was an extremely well-done reconstruction of the Tokaido Checkpoint, where travellers were searched for weapons, or for the ancient equivalent of an arrest warrant on them. Several soldiers were stationed there to provide muscle for the pen-pushing administrative types, and they occasionally put the severed head of someone they caught trying to sneak around the checkpoint on display to discourage that sort of behavior. Just past the checkpoint, as the Tokaido road continued, there was a 2 km section we walked on that was flanked by towering cedar trees. One of the shogun ordered them planted all along the Tokaido some 300 years ago, to provide shade in summer and protection from rain and snow in the winter. They worked. Although it had begun to mist, we stayed completely dry while walking under the cedars!

After 5 days of intense sightseeing, we're on a rest day to read, write this blog, and recharge the batteries. This evening we met Akiko's parents for dinner in downtown Tokyo, and what an interesting meal it was. Twelve courses, each one featuring something made from tofu. Throughout the meal the two boxes you see on the table were being heated, and a skin forming on top of a milky tofu base. Every few minutes you would take chopsticks and peal off the skin, a sort of creme de la creme du tofu, and put it in a dish, flavored with soy sauce and grated rind of citron, a fruit similar to a lime. It was a delightful meal and the Yuasa's were delightful company. Dr. and Mrs. Yuasa reminisced on their days living in Boston when he was a research fellow at Mass. General Hospital. Since Louise grew up outside Boston and Jeff went to Boston College, we had a lot of Boston memories between us.

We resume Tokyo sightseeing tomorrow. Thursday we begin a 7-day trip on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Hiroshima, Kyoto, Nara and the somewhat obscure Tsumago, a town on the other great, ancient road, the Nakasendo. We're not sure when we'll have access to a computer to "blog on," but you can be sure we'll do so sooner or later.

Our trip to Japan will culminate on August 4 when Matt and Akiko get married in the wedding chapel at the Akisaka Prince Hotel in downtown Tokyo. We can't wait!