Well, after 8 months in the land of the falling yen, I've finally gotten out and seen a bit of the place. I met Chris in Tokyo and finagled having my train pass validated. Two weeks, 34 trains, some of them the famous Japanese bullet trains and one an old deisel clunker lumbering uphill through the snow, one round trip on a cablecar down into a ravine, one disappointing vine bridge, 10 hotel rooms, several hundred kilometers by car and probably around a hundred by foot later, I collapsed back into my humble Takefu futon (hereafter the "Takefuton").
I'll keep this shorter than you might have come to expect of me. We visited (italics where we stayed overnight) Tokyo, Aizu Yanaizu, Nikko, Kyoto, Takahashi, Kurashiki, Hiroshima, the Iya Gorge on Shikoku, Himeji, Nara, Takefu, Takayama, Tsumago, Magome, Takefu again, and Kyoto again. Of course, we passed through a lot of other places.
Highlights and lowlights:
We spent almost 12 hours going to Aizu Yanaizu and back to visit a museum (the Kiyoshi Saito Museum) that occupied us for all of 45 minutes. It was a nice museum, though, and the trip into the hinterland on trains of decreasing size and speed, starting with a several hundred meter long bullet train and winding up on a one-car train I-think-I-canning up into a snowstorm.
Kyoto the first time, a little before the cherry trees hit their peak, was wonderful, especially a night time walk through the illuminated grounds of Kodai-ji temple--the hillside bamboo grove was wonderfully lit, with sharp trunks and the leaves 60' above a slightly shifting soft mint-green cloud. I also enjoyed hiking a small trail into the woods from Nanzen-ji temple to a sacred waterfall and little shrine in a cave. The tiny shrine was no great shakes, but it was wonderful to get so completely out of the city with such a short walk. We also saw the silver and gold pagodas (quite famous) and Ryoan-ji, home of the prototype of the Zen rock garden (vastly overrated, though would be much better without the idiotic tourists, foreign and domestic--however, the loud recorded announcements and obtrusive billboards for which this and other Japanese temples were quite famous ten years ago have disappeared, probably thanks to Alex Kerr, an American writer who made a big stink about this in the Japanese press). The most surprising thing I found in Kyoto was an alcoholic innkeeper. I'd called from Tokyo a few days earlier to move our reservations back a day--the innkeeper found me in her book, repeated my details, confirmed that the change was OK, and generally was quite pleasant. When we arrived, she actually raised her voice and scowled at me--no one had spoken to me so rudely in Japanese in all the time I'd been here. She had no memory of my call and was furious that I hadn't shown up the night before. I held my ground and insisted I had called, getting a bit upset myself but not out of control--Chris and I soon realized she was drunk. We didn't have to pay for the night we hadn't used, but she had no room for the following night. We were just as happy to find a new place for the second night. Chris then used his amazing resourcefulness to allow us to bypass a procedure we didn't seem to have time to follow so that we could get into a famous moss garden when we came back to Kyoto eight or nine days later (we still had to follow the procedure of donating ¥3000 and ritually purifying ourselves by copying Buddhist sutras [scriptures] for an hour before we could see the moss--for the rest of my days I can reflect that I spent 30 bucks to look at moss).
I had chosen Takahashi, a forgotten (even by the Japanese, most of whom have never heard of it) mountain town north of Okayama, because it supposedly contained a castle that was not only original (most castles here were made of concrete and steel in the 1960s) but unique, both the highest castle in Japan at 394 m over the town and the only remaining "hidden" purely military castle. The castle was interesting, but pictures of its extremely extensive restoration make it look more like a rebuilding and leave the castle's originality in doubt. Still, very nice, and great exercise, since we'd been wrongly told that the bus to the castle didn't run that day--I forgot to never trust directions or advice from any single pedestrian. That was to be our one full-treatment night in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn), with dinner, breakfast, the works. Our ryokan--the newer wing was about 200 years old, the wing with our bedroom about 400--was quite a bit past its prime, as was the family running it. Instead of the matron in kimono serving us, we had her daughter, and it seemed that she was wearing the nicest outfit she owned: her high school uniform. We guessed that she had been sent to look after us because she claimed to speak English, but she made that claim in Japanese and never understood a word we said to her in English. Still, dinner was a generous spread of fresh foods, well prepared, and the inn itself was lovely, but for the major road running just in front of it, between the balcony of our dining room (as the only guests, we had our own separate dining room) and the river. I wouldn't tell anyone heading for Japan that they must stop in Takahashi.
Kurashiki was pretty, at least in the old quarter. Chris was constantly amazed at how much the bleak industrial cities of Japan look alike--and anyone who's been here can tell you that every city of medium or larger size is a bleak industrial city. Kurashiki, Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji are all famous for traditional Japanese architecture and beautifully preserved temples, neighborhoods, or castles, but in all but those few precious acres, these are all horrifically ugly--almost enough so to be worthy of the Chinese or the Soviets--industrial cities, as bleak as the set of any urban postapocalypse movie. The Japanese like to tell themselves they live in one of the most beautiful countries on earth, but in truth they live in a stunningly ugly country with many beautiful things in isolated pockets. Until the early to mid `60s, it certainly must have been one of the most beautiful countries in the world, but no people has worked with greater diligence or gone to more expensive to so extravagantly destroy almost every hint of beauty in their country than the Japanese. Such malice can't come from mere indifference--surely these people must actively hate much of what their country was to have spent so much energy tearing it down. After checking in to our minshuku (sort of a Japanese B&B) and finding the city shutting down around us, we decided to hop a bullet train to Hiroshima, just to see the bomb monuments and say we'd been (the Japanese did have a little bit of help in tearing the place to bits). We had perhaps an hour and a half there before we had to jump on another train to make it back before the minshuku locked the door on us.
Leaving Kurashiki, we got a very long estimate of how long it would take us to get to the Iya Gorge on the island of Shikoku, but in Okayama to change trains on the way, we were told of an express going right where we wanted much more quickly. Unfortunately, we weren't told that we had to change trains just after crossing the world's longest combined rail and road bridge, so checking the map and our own internal compasses we soon figured out we were going the wrong way. A pair of locals leading to a rural semi-express finally put us where we wanted to be at exactly the time the first information person had told us we'd arrive. After three or four hours on trains, we found no bus due any time soon, so we hired a ¥3200 taxi to take us to our ultimate destination, a cleverly reinforced but quite dramatic vine bridge slung across a deep gorge over a rushing river. We arrived, paid another ¥500 each to cross the bridge, and found it to be naturally, quite wide, stable, fairly short, and while in a deep gorge it was at pretty much the bottom of it, barely 20' over the river. With Japanese tourists clinging to sides, taking tiny steps, and repeating "scary" or "I'm scared" every few seconds, we charged across down the middle as sure-footed as on any sidewalk, and as we were laughing about the $70 bucks it was going to have cost us (with the cab back to the railway station) for this lousy famous bridge, it being too absurd to get angry about, a woman addressed us in perfect English. She seemed to feel bad her country had cheated us, and she and her husband offered to drive us back to the station, as they were headed back to Osaka and it was on their way. We accepted. They were also planning to visit an onsen in the area, and her husband suggested it would be easier to go there first, which was fine with us. From a hotel at the top of a 70 m deep canyon, we took a cable car down to river level, where there were outdoor hot spring baths (covered and segregated, of course)--lovely, even though the water stank of sulfur and the volcano didn't seem to be on full power, turning out only lukewarm water. We ended up staying with these folks most of the way home to Osaka, asking them to drop us at a train station just on the mainland side of the other main bridge, which is also the world's longest in some category and must be one of the world's most expensive--the toll for passenger cars is ¥6000 ($50 as I write). I believe they wanted to practice their English and enjoy meeting foreigners--we certainly enjoyed their company as well as benefitting from their hospitality. We felt especially bad because we usurped the entire back seat, consigning their dog to the little area at the very back--but at every stop, they tied her behind the car and left her in the shade with a bowl of water and a comfortable box to sleep on. I don't know if those two really know what a wonderful impression their kindness left on us.
Himeji, 15 minutes by bullet train from where Kimiko and Naoya left us, is ugly even by Japanese standards, but it has the finest original castle left in Japan, and lit up at night after we arrived, surrounded by cherry trees in full bloom, it was fabulous. The next day, we went inside, and saw it again with its cherry trees. Simply put, if you come to Japan, you must go to the Gion neighborhood of Kyoto, and you must go to Himeji. I'm not big on flowers and I'd always pooh-poohed the whole blooming tree fascination, but I must say that I was surprised at how beautiful the cherry trees were, especially at Himeji and in the temples and old neighborhoods of Kyoto, where they were in full bloom when we visited it the second time.
From Himeji, we visited Nara (the big Buddha is REALLY big and actually is impressive enough to be worth a visit). The big park containing most of the temples and sights is infested with sacred vermin deer. Then we made it to lovely Takefu, whence we departed in my car for points north and inland. Takayama, not a museum town but nonetheless well preserved and small enough not to be a bleak industrial city, was the first place that satisfied some of what Chris had expected to see in Japan. It's a great town just to walk around, and I'd say it's another place you should really try hard to get to when you come to Japan. We then drove north into Nagano (saw many wild monkeys there, much to my satisfaction--the damned things live within a few hundred meters of my apartment but I had to drive hundred of km to see some for the first time) and pulled into Tsumago, where a kind innkeeper took us in quite late (8:00) and gave us directions to the next down for dinner, everything in Tsumago having shut down at such a late hour. After dinner (and friendly conversation with local patrons and restaurant owner/cook), we drove back and walked around town by moonlight--view from a path just above town over the town, fields, and mountainsides under the bright moon was wonderful. Tsumago is very well preserved--for tourists, of course, but there can't be 30 ryokan rooms in the town, so after 5 and before 10 am it's beautiful--really like walking down mainstreet a few hundred years ago. Then on to Magome, even more touristy but gorgeous, old houses along a path down a steep ridgeline with beautiful views of distant high mountains on all sides--and expensive rice crackers and soft-serve. Then back to Takefu, taking a more northerly route for different scenery; a clever shortcut to avoid passing through Takayama again ended up adding two hours to the trip because just a few kilometers short of success it was blocked by snow. Trying to find a way around the blocked pass, we found a village where four of the five streets in and out were still blocked. They must have had 4 m on the ground here in February.
Then, I did my half day of sitting around at work (but no work, and in fact no going to the ceremony I had specifically returned for because that day was on a special schedule I had not been told about) and Chris went to Kanazawa, and in the afternoon I took him to my favorite place along the coast near here, and then we found the outdoor seaside onsen the husband of the couple we had met in Shikoku had told us about (never mind that it's 20 minutes from my apartment, I had to find out where it was from a kind stranger hundreds of kilometers away). I very cleverly got lost trying to go home on a different road I thought would be faster and soon realized I wouldn't have time to get my bags from the apartment before catching our train to Kyoto (Chris, ever smarter, had stowed his in the car), so I showed up in Kyoto with the clothes on my back and my camera case, where I had oddly but luckily stashed my train pass. Kyoto was much more crowded than it had been the previous week because the cherries were in full bloom. The Japanese take their cherry blossom viewing as seriously as they take their drinking, and they especially like to take them seriously at the same time. In Maruyama Park, near a huge cherry tree, supposedly the finest in the country, drunken young blossom viewers were stripping to their undies and diving into a shallow pond (men only--and it was cold). A man in his fifties offered us some beer, and his more sober wife looked quite pleased when we said "no, thank you." The crowds were not bad enough to keep us from enjoying the city, although they were bad enough to keep us from enjoying one of the things we enjoy most in any city, a cheap hotel room. Nevertheless, it's worth seeing Kyoto when the cherries are in bloom. As much as I'd wanted to see monkeys, Chris had wanted to see geishas. He got his, too. We spotted two young geishas (perhaps maiko, apprentice geishas--but no, from the details in Arthur Golden's book, these were not maiko) in Gion, and followed them for a while. The Japanese responded to them as much as the foreign tourists did--this is part of what they come to Kyoto for, too, and you just don't see a lot of geisha in modern Japan. They surprised us at one point when one pulled a camera out of her kimono sleeve and they started to take pictures of each other. It was then that I talked to a real geisha! I offered to shoot a picture of both of them together. Once they were assured that I didn't want to take a picture with them or of them for myself, one happily handed me the camera, and even brushed her finger against mine as I gave it back to her. It was the only picture I've yet been able to take of young Japanese women not making silly peace-sign gestures for the camera. Later, we had several other geisha sightings.
Chris left for Tokyo and his plane on the last morning, but my fun wasn't over. I found a foreign foods store on my way out of town (well, it wasn't exactly on my way) and stocked up on cheese (you just can't find a good chevre--or even a bad chevre--to save your life in Fukui). Life is good.
So, I've put a lot of mileage on my loafers, my feet will hurt for days, I'm a bit sunburnt, and somehow I've come out of this 10 pounds lighter--in short, I had a great time. I can think of only a couple of other very close friends I could spend so much time in such close quarters with without serious friction, and there were a couple of times when Chris' persistence and ingenuity got us into places I might have given up on. And I finally got out of Takefu.
O genki de