So Near and Yet So Far (Japan)

October 2013

Additional photos can be found here.

Ted and I spent about 10 days in Japan in mid-October. This was our second trip to Japan together (Ted’s third). I can’t really explain why we like Japan so much. But there’s something about the combination of modern Western conveniences and a very different cultural heritage that is irresistible to us.

Since we had already been to Tokyo, we decided to spend more of this trip in the western half of Japan.  We started in Kyoto, where we were fortunate enough to stay in a small (7-room) hotel in the picturesque Gion District. Gion is the center of Kyoto nightlife (bars, restaurants, and discreet geisha tea houses), and there aren’t many hotels there. This wonderful place treated us as though we were members of an extended family. Each morning, we would discuss our touring plans with the staff and they would give us helpful hints about how to get there and what to see. Each evening, after asking what type of food we wanted to eat, they would make us a reservation at a local restaurant, where “Ted-sama” and I, with a reference from the hotel, were greeted as regular customers. The hotel also offered a most unusual breakfast: homemade yogurt with fresh fruit, boiled eggs, pastries – and (surprisingly refreshing) vegetable soup.

Ryoan-ji

In Kyoto, most of the sightseeing involves Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. (The differences between those two religions are not apparent to the casual traveler, and in any event many Japanese practice both.) Our favorites were Ryoan-ji, a Buddhist temple with a rock garden carefully set up so that you can never see all the rocks at the same time, Kodai-ji, where one can can admire the same view as did Nene the long-lived wife of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, and Shoren-In, a Shinto temple with spectacular flower paintings. Ginkakuji (the “silver” or “moon viewing” temple) was also particularly attractive in the rain.

A Maiko

At the local crafts museum, we were fortunate enough to see an authentic dance performance by a maiko (apprentice geisha). Although the dance forms, music and language were completely unknown to us, the emotional resonance of the highly-disciplined dance, where most of the body was kept still and only the dancer’s arms, hands and fan were in motion, was unexpectedly powerful. It reminded us, in an odd way, of flamenco.

Kyoto is known for its food, and it did not disappoint. Some of the restaurants were amazingly specialized. One restaurant, for example, served only chicken, although it included chicken parts (necks, hearts and gizzards) not usually seen (or identified) in American restaurants. And we had a wonderful lunch in the suburb of Arashiyama, at a restaurant that specialized in tofu. But the traditional Kyoto restaurant follows the kaiseki style, where each course uses a distinct cooking style – raw, fried, grilled, steamed – and focuses on seasonal ingredients. Though we ate a number of such meals in Japan, we never had the same meal – or even the same course – twice. We loved the food, even the stuff we didn’t recognize – although I couldn’t manage to eat the head of the small skewered fish we were served, as suggested. Too roly-poly, I guess.

After Kyoto, we went to Nara, home of the Daibutsu (Big Buddha), which is housed in a building that is believed to be the largest wood structure in the world. The shrine includes a pierced column which, if you can wriggle your way through, is supposed to guarantee a ticket to Paradise. It helps to be 4 years old – although we did see one 20-something Aussie do it, to the amusement of the crowd. The Buddha shrine is situated in an extensive park, home of some very assertive “tame” deer. Nara also has some spectacular gardens.

We stayed in the Nara Hotel, located at the entrance to the park. The hotel was built around the turn of the last century, and was designed to be a “rustic lodge” for city people – something like the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, although with distinctive Japanese architectural elements. One corridor of the hotel has pictures of the dozen or so visits by the Imperial Family – a big deal, since the Japanese royals don’t often appear in public.

After Nara, we took the spectacular Japanese train system to Hiroshima, about 2 hours by shinkansen. Japanese trains are expensive, and the fare system is very complicated. But you can’t beat them for speed and convenience.

Hiroshima was totally rebuilt after the war, and with its tall buildings and broad streets it looks much like an American city. The epicenter of the atomic bomb blast, once a densely-populated residential district, is now a Peace Park, with monuments and a small museum. Though lovely, it’s a pretty spooky place – it’s immediately obvious that you are walking on a mass grave. (In fact, the bones of nearly 80,000 mostly unidentified victims are buried here.) At one end of the park, there is a small stone statue of Jiso (a Buddhist deity) which survived the blast, although you can still see a “shadow” in the pedestal left by the heat. The museum includes replicas of letters sent by successive mayors of Hiroshima protesting nuclear bomb tests. There are letters to the leaders of Britain, France, Russia, China and the US (including Barack Obama), as well as a particularly acerbic one to North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un.

Hiroshima is particularly known for okonomiyaki, a kind of pancake cooked on a hot griddle in front of you. It’s surprisingly good and reasonably priced. We had the traditional version (pork, cabbage and bean sprouts), although versions with many different flavorings are available.

From Hiroshima, we went to the picturesque island of Miyajima, known for an 11th C Shinto shrine seems to float on the water at high tide. The Torii gate (the seaside entrance to the shrine) is often photographed at sunrise. Unfortunately, both of these effects were muted by the rain (we caught the edge of a late-season typhoon). But we had a good time nevertheless.

At Miyajima, we stayed at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), run by a family in its fourth generation of innkeeping. Our room was set up for sitting during the day, and futons would be brought out for sleeping at night. The room set-up would be magically changed while you were eating meals. The room also had a traditional Japanese cedar bath, designed for full-body soaking. Despite its rustic appearance (complete with a little wooden bucket for pre-washing), the bath was thoroughly modern – you just selected your temperature, and the bath would be filled in 10 minutes. Sleeping on the floor futons, with the sound of a rushing stream and the rain outside, was surprisingly comfortable – at least for one of us.

From Miyajima, we traveled to Kurashiki, a small town whose old section still looks much as it did in the 17th C (although with modern conveniences). Kurashiki is something of an “artist” town, with a number of shops selling high-quality pottery, lacquerware and other traditional Japanese arts. It also is the home of the Ohara Museum , one of the best collections of Western art in Japan. (The art was once the private collection of a Japanese industrialist.)

At Kurashiki, we stayed at a more “upscale” ryokan. Our “room” was really a suite, with separate sleeping, eating and sitting areas and a small garden. Although the room had its own bath, we took advantage of the larger, more elaborate separate bath that is a feature of many ryokans. The staff didn’t speak much English, and we have virtually no Japanese, but they were obviously used to Western travelers — they asked us if we wanted to bathe together (which Japanese couples don’t often do).

After bathing, we were served dinner in our rooms, sitting on tatami mats in our stockinged feet, wearing the full-length bathrobes furnished by the hotel – a most civilized way to eat. Dinner was served course by course. Each course was a tiny work of art. Not only was the food presented attractively, but many of the place settings included fall foliage and other seasonal elements, which are an important part of the Japanese esthetic. And since it was Japan, nobody had any problem with our taking pictures of our meal.

After Kurashiki, we stopped for an afternoon at Himeji, one of the few more-or-less original 17th castles left in Japan (many others, like the one in Osaka, are modern reconstructions). Himeji Castle is undergoing a major, multi-year renovation project , which meant that its famous “White Egret Tower” was shrouded in scaffolding. Given the importance of the castle to the local tourist industry, however, the restoration project included an elevator, which allowed tourists to view the roof at close range – something that won’t actually be possible once the project is done.

At Himeji, we were offered the services of an English-speaking guide. In most other countries, such guides are often expensive. But here, as is often the case in Japan, the guide was a volunteer – a middle-aged businessman who traveled internationally and wanted to improve his English. He was not only very knowledgeable about the castle, but also the details of the restoration project – an “engineering-oriented” tour you don’t usually get from more traditional guides.

At Himeji, we had an unusual local specialty – a rice bowl served with raw egg, which you cracked over the rice (the heat of the rice cooks the egg) and finished with various toppings. The eggs, we were told, were delivered every day from a farm where the chicken were raised listening to Mozart. They were quite wonderful.

We finished the trip in Osaka, traditionally Japan’s second city (although it was recently passed by Yokohama). The Dotonbori, filled with bars and restaurants, is filled with flashing, talking billboards and wild wall ornaments advertising their wares – plastic models of crabs, fugu (puffer fish) or samurai chefs.  It was supposedly the model for the main commercial street of “LA” in Blade Runner, but the effect of the real-life place was irrational exuberance, not dystopia.

Although Osaka is a big city, it has surprising oases of quiet. We visited one shrine which, serendipitously, happened to be a place where local families came to celebrate the children’s birthdays.  Many of the children, boys as well as girls, were dressed in decorative kimonos. There were also  newborn babies wrapped in yards of spectacularly beautiful fabric.

On our last evening, we sampled teppanyaki – beef cooked on a hot griddle right in front of you (although without the theatrical knife work you sometimes find in American Japanese restaurants). The chef offered us “garlic risotto,” which turned out to be Japanese rice, slightly undercooked, tossed on the grill with slivered garlic. It wasn’t like any risotto I’ve had in Italy – but it was surprisingly tasty.

Although we ate well in Osaka, we were embarrassed to discover, too late, that the city has an amazing number of Michelin-starred restaurants. I guess we’ll just have to go back.

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