Japan 2010

Japan Trip–Day 1

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

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It’s been five years since Jan and I traveled abroad, my retirement began, and I started writing this blog.  Japan was the next destination on our list because we were attracted by what we knew of its culture–haiku, sashimi, kabuki, Toyota–and because we hoped to spend some time there with our nieces, Emma and Marie, whose mother is Japanese-Korean.  The nieces had gotten married and engaged within the last year and wanted to introduce their partners to the family, so the time had arrived to coordinate plans.  Jan and I would go on a ten-day guided tour of “Japan’s Cultural Treasures” and meet them afterward for a few days together in Osaka, where it happened a friend of ours from San Luis Obispo had been living for three years.  Once we decided our schedule, I contacted Kazumi Yamagata, an eminent scholar of English Literature who’d translated my book on Shakespeare and the Bible into Japanese, and he invited us to visit him and his family at home outside of Tokyo the day before the tour  started.

After 24 hours of travel and a good night’s sleep we were met at our hotel by a disciple of Dr. Yamagata who conducted us through the maze of downtown Tokyo to Central station where we met one of his disciples and boarded the bullet train for an hour’s trip north to the Professor’s home.

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These men all teach English literature and were relatively easy for us to communicate with.  Kazumi’s wife, Satchiko, met us at the station in their daughter’s Jaguar and drove us to their  country home, where were we received warmly by the mentor, who’d turned 76 the day before.  We spent time gossiping about English literary critics, I signed their copies of his translation, and Kazumi brought out fourteen volumes of his collected works recently published–a minor portion of the 50 books that he’s written.

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He was pleased when Jan mentioned that she’d written her M.A. thesis on Dante, who he’s now translating into Japanese.

After a couple of hours, they took us to a traditional restaurant in their neighborhood where we ate large quantities of melt-in-your-mouth and melt-you-away sashimi and tempura.

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Then back to their house for tea and a tour of his study, and a visit with their daughter, Yumi, who’d just arrived from a concert she’d performed at in southern Japan.  Jan got to know her better than I did, but as her flute played quietly on the stereo in the background, they brought out gifts for us including a new CD of her work.

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We toured their garden, where the same plants that we’d eaten in the tempura were springing up, plum blossoms in the background.

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We returned to Tokyo in time to meet up with our tour group led by Maya, our striking and gracious guide. We marched together to a little dive for yakitori dinner and then home to this “modest” hotel, one of the best I’ve ever stayed in, that has a toilet with two different kinds of sprays for one’s undercarriage, along with a really deep bathtub.

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Japan Trip–Day 2

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

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Light from the rising sun pours into the sixth floor window of our ryokan perched on a steep slope inside the crater of Hakone.  Beneath it a ring of peaks is broken by the river valley that opens into the sea.  I drink green tea from a cup on a wooden coaster, brewed on the low table next to the futons where we slept and I lay wakeful for a good part of the night, overstimulated with impressions and still not adjusted to the seventeen hours lost by travel across the Pacific. I’m dressed in the elegant cotton yukata I wore to dinner last night and to the hot sulfur baths where I soaked yesterday afternoon and this morning at 5.

Our second day in was largely taken up with bus travel through heavy but smoothly flowing traffic in Tokyo streets and on expressways and tightly curved mountain roads during this Spring Equinox holiday weekend.

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The transit time was enlivened by the variety of unfamiliar landscapes and the continuous offerings provided by our beautiful and hard working guide Maya.  She lectured on geography, history, linguistics, geology, cuisine and etiquette, using maps, color handouts, flip cards, little cheat sheets, and mnemonic songs.  I learned, and immediately forgot, basic greetings, numbers, some written Japanese characters, and a jingle in tribute to Mt Fuji.

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After driving for an hour south from Tokyo through a dense urban world—all buildings outside the center appearing recent, angular, drab but clean–we suddenly entered a landscape of forested mountains, river valleys, little villages and artfully bordered rice patties. The brown pre-spring vegetation was offset by patches of evergreen and a few groves of plum blossoms. The expressway rest stop buzzed with vacationers, food vendors and souvenir hawkers.

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First destination was Mt. Fuji, which the bus ascended to station 5 at about 7000 feet.  This is the busy trailhead for thousands of summer hikers who climb the remaining 5000 feet to the summit, a pilgrimage that Japanese expect to make at least once in a lifetime. We got off the bus and entered the crowd battling the cold wind. Away from the parking lot the ground was covered with snow and ice, but eventually we came upon an observation platform sheltered from the gale where one could get a clear view of the summit, which occasionally appeared from behind a streaming shroud of snow and cloud. Despite the buses and multistory tourist facilities, the place felt like a real and dangerous mountain.

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After fifteen minutes we were ushered back on the bus for a ride to the Fuji information center near the northern base. The clearing skies allowed for a classic view of the graceful cone whose shape was familiar to me since early childhood from stamps and world puzzles as the icon of Japan.

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It would have been nice to slow down and pay homage for a while, but the wind remained strong, the museum beckoned and the schedule pressed us forward. As the bus headed south, through the windows we caught fleeting glimpses of this huge image of unalterable perfection always changing before our eyes. Maya recited the proverb: watch Fuji for ten minutes and you get a hundred views.

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Another stint in the bus brought us to Hakone, to the world of onsen–hot springs–and ryokan–traditional rooms.  Still under the spell of  the mountain, we opened the door to a space whose first impression was comparably familiar and overwhelming: the austere beauty of unfinished planed lumber framing large panels of wall and small panels of translucent rice paper, the tightly woven tatami mats, hard yet springy to the touch, their moldings of embroidered blue silk, the low black table and cushioned floor seats, all waiting for the hotel porter, who arrived just behind us with a pot of hot tea he placed inside a round laquered  box containing ceramic cups, wooden coasters and a coiled towel in a basket. He smiled, bowed, and disappeared, silently sliding the doors and leaving us to partake undistracted in the room’s celebration of squares, rectangles and circles.

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After a quiet cup of tea, we changed clothes to prepare for the baths. The protocol was inculcated by the guidebook’s instruction, Maya’s gentle admonitions, and posters on the wall in English as well as Japanese.  There are two baths, one on either side of the elevator on the first floor, the red curtained for women, the green for men.  The designation alternates daily, marked by the changing of the curtain.  Yukatas and slippers supplied in the rooms are worn in the hotel, removed and stowed in the sink area and locker room outside the inner curtain and sliding door leading to the tubs.  Passing through them naked, I found a steam-filled chamber, to one side the three foot deep pool into which the mineral water flows continually, to the other a row of booths, each with a shelf holding a dozen or so bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body soaps and lotions in front of a full size mirror.

Several of the booths were occupied by men sitting on low plastic stools, assiduously scrubbing themselves with washcloths and brushes and then rinsing off with the hand-held showers attached to plumbing fixtures on the floor between their legs.  I followed their example to get clean before entering the pool, and then stepped into the bath and leaned against the wall near the inlet, where a stream of the extremely hot water from the thermal source mixed with a smaller stream of cold to maintain a tolerable temperature. I enjoyed the familiar sensation of pain and stiffness draining from my joints, especially knuckles and knees, and the occasional change in water temperature resulting from some subterranean valve adjustment.

Fifteen minutes later, I was ready to get out but the men in the booths were still busily scrubbing. After two baths in the deep tub and using the advanced toilet appliance in the Tokyo hotel, I’d already felt unusually clean before entering this chamber.  What in the world could these guys be doing?  But then I remembered the requirement to leave shoes at the door, the little cloth in the tea set, the damp towel offered with meals and the face masks worn by people on the street, and I realized that citizens of this tightly packed country had reason to make a cult of hygiene.

Light-headed after the day’s ascent and immersion, upon entering the banquet room I again felt overwhelmed–this time by the the traditional Japanese dinner panoply spread at my seat.  A dozen dishes each of a different shape, color and material held  elaborate combinations of artfully processed ingredients. I can picture a small wooden box with a plunger which required me to press a block of green-tea tofu into 20 sharp edged tiny blocks that tumbled into a bowl of misu soup containing scallions and buckwheat noodles, but the rest of the details are lost to memory since I didnt take pictures and neglected to keep the menu.  The second night’s dinner was equally complex without repeating any dishes or ingredients:

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After this feast we turned down Maya’s invitation to watch a video of “Lost in Translation” and retired to our lodging. During dinner it had been converted from parlor to bedroom, the table moved aside and two futons covering the tatami mats made up with flower-patterned down quilts showing through a large oval window in their fitted sheets.

Japan Trip–Day 3

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

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Jan and I decided to walk around the village of Goya during the 40 minutes before the bus departure.  The weather was clear and brisk.  We took one of the steep streets bordering the city park, passing new resort hotels, antique gates of private residences, stone walls erected with huge rocks, neatly cut or jagged and irregular, bubbling tanks, and small flumes along the gutters that steamed with fast flowing hot water.

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As we rounded a corner, the top of the mountain we were on came into view, a steeple-like peak below which a series of modern masonry walls spanned an eroded gulley.  “I bet they’re building a hotel up there, what a travesty,” I complained.

The bus drove up the hill where we’d walked, to the large terminal of a teleferique heading toward the mountaintop over an expanse of forest. Our group of fifteen packed into two gondolas and ascended, the view over forest and ocean expanding as we went.  Suddenly there was a gasp and the passengers in our gondola rushed to the right side to gaze at Fuji rising over the far wall of the caldera, brilliant in the morning sun.

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Another minute and all turned to the left to gaze down at billowing plumes of smoke erupting from yellow sulfurous pits in a barren gully cluttered with rusting steel towers and crossed by modern masonry walls built, not for a hotel, but to prevent the mountainside from falling on the town. This place, said Maya, was known as hell in the sky.

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The ropeway ended on a plateau below the summit at a complex of hotels and restaurants, just below paths leading up to a bunch of steam-spewing vents.

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The place was as crowded and busy as Tokyo Central station on this holiday weekend. Maya told us we could ascend for a closer look at the vents and buy the famous black eggs boiled  in their bubbling cauldrons, and that we should meet back in 40 minutes at the sign of her cherry-blossom wand.

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People of all ages indulged in the characteristic activity of posing and photographing each other in special places, happy to have reached this mecca on a beautiful day that provided heavenly views of Fuji and a chance to play on the brink of the inferno.

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We couldn’t resist the endless sign-language offers to stand and say cheese while someone snapped our cameras and put our stamp on the incredible scene.

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Anthony, a member of our tour group bought a bag of five eggs and offered us two to celebrate a demonic prelude to Easter.

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By some magic the tour bus met us at the top of the ropeway and carried us down the mountain past a horrible jam of cars trying to drive up. It deposited us at a ferry terminal on a lake at the bottom of the caldera.  The boat took us across, followed by another decked out as a fanciful pirate ship.

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After a 20 minute voyage, we landed at a terminal in the town of Hakone Machi, and Maya ushered us into a lakefront hotel where we were indulged with a lavish Sunday buffet. After lunch, as the weather turned less friendly, she led us on a walk down an ancient wide footpath that used to be the main road between Kyoto and Tokyo lined with 200 foot 400 year old Japanese cedars.

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The bus met us at the end of the path and passed a bright red Tori gate in the water as Fuji once again came into towering view.

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The prospect was a famous image that we saw repeated in the amazing wood mosaics on display in the workshop and store of a craftsman whose family had mastered the art over a period of hundreds of years.

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Maya translated as he gave a lecture and demonstration of techniques for assembling blocks of different colored wood and then using a plane to shave off paper-thin layers of geometric or representational patterns that were either framed or applied to the surfaces of everything from ball point pens to puzzle boxes.

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The bus wound around the ridges and canyons of the Caldera and stopped at the Pola Open Air Art Museum highly recommended by Kazumi and Maya.  But by this time I had reached my limit of stimulation and went back to the ryokan, while Jan stayed and later showed me her pictures of the marvels I’d missed.

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After a short nap I descended from the sixth to the first floor in my yukata and slippers and entered the onsen on the left side where I’d bathed at 5:00 A.M. I enjoyed being there all alone, and after a soak in the pool duly preceded by a thorough scrub, I decided to enter the sauna off the dressing room. Just as the sweat started flowing, I looked through the sauna’s large window and got a glimpse of the swept up straight black hair and graceful back of a naked girl passing through the inner curtain.  It was red!  I dashed out of the sauna, grabbed my towel and yukata, trying unsuccessfully to get my arms into the wide sleeves as I stumbled through the outer door, hoping to avoid another encounter on my way to the opposite door, which now was curtained in green.  Both relieved and flustered, I noticed three pairs of slippers outside, which told me the pool would be occupied.  I dumped the towel and flopping yukata in a basket and went through the green inner curtain, bowed politely to the three men inside and walked straight into the hot pool, since I’d already scrubbed with soap before. No one said anything, but all three looked at me with swords. It took  a little longer for me to realize my error this time, but then it hit me: they thought I was getting in unwashed.

Japan Trip – Day 4

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

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The bus took us down the long winding valley we’d seen out our window to the railway station on the coast. We bought box lunches in one of the crowded little booths on the platform that offered  fresh food and paid the immaculately dressed  cashier about five dollars each. Anthony gave us a copy of the Japan Times.  The first page showed Nancy Pelosi and other jubilant Democratic party leaders parading in Washington under the headline, “health reform bill passes.”

As we stood in line at the place for our reserved seats, a superbullet train whizzed through the station at over 200 miles an hour, so quietly and quickly it seemed from another dimension.

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Our conventional Shinkasen (bullet train) took us the distance to Nagoya in less than an hour, where we switched to the non-bullet express heading north to Kanazawa. Passing through the grandiose station entry at our destination, we were driven by black-suited cabbies to the KKH hotel, located across the street from the castle wall and moat. I loved the design of that sleek but moderately priced “business hotel,’ its sharp right angles and clear wood surfaces echoing the  architecture of the ryokan, including a traditional garden in the courtyard.

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Maya led us on a walk downtown through narrow streets shared by bicycles and fast moving vehicles which seemed to have the right of way but  didn’t threaten pedestrians. The urban landscape was a hodgepodge of office buildings apartment blocks, old residences, stores, restaurants, warehouses, manufacturing facilities, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

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Little gardens appeared everywhere, and when there was no room for them, rows of potted plants.  We made our way through an indoor market filled with brightly lighted stalls displaying vegetables, meat, fish, and sweets—arranged like the dishes at meals to appeal to the eye as much as to the taste.

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As the market closed at 5 p.m. we crossed a main thoroughfare and entered a mall of department stores packed with the elegant clothing and accessories worn by  everyone from students to executives.

Back at the hotel we were treated to a fine formal western-style dinner in the dining room.  We asked Maya if it would be possible to attend a Kabuki performance when we got to Kyoto, and she reserved us the cheapest seats for the  the last of the season’s, a production directed by  Ennosuki, a  legendary superstar.