Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Kyoto is a Japanese city of 1.5 million that was taken off the list of possible targets of nuclear weapons because an American General had visited it and deemed it too culturally important, saying its loss would have too destructive an effect on the Japanese people. Perhaps it was for this twist of Fate that the beautiful history in the city still stands.

After an enjoyable breakfast, we took the ferry off Miyajima and made our way on the train to Kyoto. We visited the famous Sanjūsangen-dō first. Pictures were not allowed here, but I suggest you visit and link and see for yourself. Sanjūsangen-dō is a buddhist temple with one thousand Kannon statues, and some other buddhist statues as well. The statues are collectively a clear statement of devotion, and individually stand for compassion. It also houses practicing monks, as do all of the buddhist temples we've visited.

As night fell, we visited Kyomizu Temple. We had to wait in line for a little while as the daytime crowd cleared before we were allowed in. The recent weekend was considered the end of foliage season, so here in Kyoto, even on a Monday night, there were many people out.

Steps up to the temple

Kyomizu is a Buddhist temple built on an impressive stage of wood. At night, spotlights are pointed towards the temple and surrounding trees, giving them a striking contrast, and an almost surreal feel.

Afterwards, we walked through Kyoto, including the famous neighborhood Gion where Geisha and Geisha-in-training (Maiko) live and work. Tourists, especially foreign tourists, were out in abundance here. We saw a Maiko walking with polite light steps through a cobblestone street; I did not get a good picture, but I think Hiro might have.

Typical Gion Lantern

Given we were going to another onsen the following night, we initially discussed getting a light dinner, but it turned into a tasty Nabe dinner at a popular neighborhood restaurant. We had gyoza and a tasty cucumber pickle too for good measure. In Japan, traditional cuisine contains many types of pickles and seafood dishes. Of course, with our dinner, we had plenty of beer and sake.

Bars and most restaurants in Japan also allow smoking. I don't smoke, but everyone else on the trip took the opportunity to enjoy a few cigarettes before we left for our hotel.

Food Coma!


The days on this trip have been warm and sunny. Perhaps because of the previous day's events in Hiroshima, I found the greatest peace on the trip on the island of Miyajima.

We took a train ride - our JR passes have been so essential to our travels - to the end of the line, where we took a short ferry ride onto the island of Mikajima. We passed its famous Torii, or traditional Shinto gate. The theme of hell and heaven has been persistent on our trip, so it was fitting. We arrived at high tide.

On the island, many people were walking about, as were many deer! The deer are tame, and spent their time wandering about like tourists. We checked out the temple at the base of the island, and Dave and Hiro took a bunch of pictures. I managed a few that came out pretty well too:


Temple with pagoda in background

We then dropped off our stuff at our hotel. They claimed they were an onsen, but we learned their outdoor bath was not heated through a natural hot springs. We found that our skin became softer and smooth after Beppu; alas, here we were destined for chlorine and not sulfur in the water.

We hiked around the island a bit after that. As we hiked up, we found a large Buddhist temple constructed on a slant on top of carved rock. It was impressive. By this time twilight was approaching, giving the place a wonderful coolness that sunk in deeply. The air was crisp and fresh, and there were no tourists around. Peace was transplendent and complete. I could have spent hours there, but instead, we had a scheduled dinner to attend to. I decided I would come back the following morning and try to hike to the top of the mountain and catch the sunrise.

Hiro lighting incense at the mountain shrine

Lighting incense at the mountain shrine

Cute Buddhas!

Hiro and Dave took advantage of a moment without hotel staff around for an impromptu "swordfight" when we returned:

En garde!

Dinner was quite tasty one more time. The shabu shabu was phenomenal, and everything else was good. My onsen heart, however, was still in Beppu.

I woke up a little after 6 in the morning to the sound of my "bad to the bone" iPhone ring (needless to say it was quite out of place on Miyajima, but even on vacation you can't escape your normal life's eccentricities completely). Dave decided to join me with his camera, and we were off to hike the mountain.

We passed the buddhist temple, and walked up hundreds of steps towards the top. Cool morning air accompanied our way up, as well as the beginnings of sunlight on the colorful foliage around. The entire path was based in concrete and consisted of concrete steps. This was not the softest for our feet, but it did show an interesting balance of Man and Nature. A lot of work must have been put into carrying up all of the equipment and materials and crafting the stairs. In the end, however, Nature always wins.

Temple from above

Torii on my shoulder

We reached a sign that said there was another 1.8km remaining, but we had to turn back to go to our scheduled traditional breakfast. On this island, as, I would like to belieive, in life: the glass is half full. I viewed the remaining hike to the top as something to look forward to in some future tomorrow.

Monday, November 29, 2010


Note - I haven't had Internet access for a few days, and the place I'm staying at in Kyoto now has access through its electrical wires. It's horribly slow. So I won't be able to upload pictures for at least another day. Stay tuned! :) Im going to post here about Hiroshima and add pictures and other posts later.


Hiro, JaneAnn, Dave and I arrived in Hiroshima in the late afternoon and took a train to our hotel to drop off our stuff. We stayed at the Hiroshima Grand Intelligent - our room was small with a prefabricated bathroom and twin beds that were separated by a drawer that had knobs on the front for each of the lights in the room. The drawer also had an old looking analog clock with dials for minutes and hours, and buttons for 5 radio stations. It made me wonder when exactly the room was made, and if it was ever state of the art...it felt like it was prefabricated then plopped down in its entirety onto the 10th floor.

Hiroshima is known throughout the world as the first city that experienced the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Our first visit was the A-Bomb Hall, the only large structure near the epicenter that remained standing after the blast. It has been repaired over time to make it look like it did immediately following the explosion - a shell of a place. We then visited the Peace Park, and the Peace Memorial Museum. With such history, it's impossible not to pause and reflect about who we are. I've collected my thoughts and will try and capture them here.

Timeless Lament

We are in awe of beauty from disaster. It is something essential that makes us human - larger than the sum of our biological parts. Long before the age of 24-hour news channels, when something horrible has happened, our hearts have rushed to find out more, to understand how something so staggering could befall us. We cannot help but ask "why". Then, after the initial event is over, we show how strongly we want to persevere. Perhaps this is the best answer we can craft to the question. Disaster has always occurred in our universe, and is central to our existence. If not for the event that killed the dinosaurs, say, we would probably not be here today. Everything that we hold dear could be traced to this act of wanton destruction. There are other examples. One wonders what preceded the Big Bang; was something destroyed to make way for all of the seemingly endless space, including stars, galaxies, and planets, in particular our own pale blue dot?

One day, the life-giving star we call our own, that for so long our best minds considered the center of the universe, will fade. It will sputter and flicker and quiver into oblivion. But until the sun dies, this place will be our home, and our instincts will cry for beauty and see it in the face of horrible things. There will be no shortage of disaster in our future, but there also won't be a shortage of a beautiful shared humanity across culture and other boundaries. It will continue to make us wonderful, special creatures in the universe.

The Peace Museum in Hiroshima is a sad place. We spent a few hours walking its halls and looking at the videos, pictures, artifacts, and dioramas. In significant detail, the exhibit went over the history of the city leading to the event, the reasons Hiroshima was chosen to bomb by the US, and the effects of the bombing. It did not seek to address larger rationales about the war, and for the most part refrained from judgments outside of one major conclusion: nuclear weapons are almost unimaginably horrible, are an existential threat, and should be dismantled at any cost. They are a fundamental threat to everything we hold dear. Hiro said the new exhibition at the museum was controversial because it was much less gruesome than the previous version. The reality of what happened should not be lost on us, and sad as it was, the place is something everyone should visit once.

Diorama - Before

Diorama - After

I may write more about this later, but I don't have time now. There's much to see and do today!

The rest of the evening was fun - we got drinks and Okonomiyaki at a popular place in downtown Hiroshima, and sang karaoke at a random small upstairs hostess bar. I sang "My Way", among other things, which seemed to be a crowd pleaser. All you can drink for 70 minutes served us well!

The following day, spent on the island of Miyajima, was wonderful in many ways...there's much more to beauty than sad contemplation. More to come later; I'm pressed for time now. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Natural Beauty and Relaxation

Some interesting facts about the vents in Beppu. There are 2900 of them, but if you dig 500 feet anywhere, you'll reach hot spring. 137 thousand tons of water is spewed forth each day, which is second in quantity to Yellowstone National Park. Water has a 50-year cycle here; rain that comes down today will come back from the earth in 2060 or so.

Here are some pictures from the hells:

Spout Hell

Blood Hell

Mud Hell

The vermilion color at Blood Hell made it my favorite. Hot springs run through ferrite, which creates the striking color. A volcano erupted after an earthquake some 400 years ago at the site of the Mud Hell, destroying a temple there and killing a monk inside it. The hells seemed tame, but beautiful, but our tour guide reminded us that at any time an earthquake could occur. Nothing sparks a touristic journey like the fear of death!

Our cabbie finally dropped us off at our hillside onsen. After a day of hell visiting, it was time to relax. We were greeted a kind staff, who served us tea and a Japanese cookie in our traditional room to begin our onsen stay.

Room entrance

Slippers outside our door

After receiving our robes, we went down to the public bath. Following the tradition, we cleaned ourselves by showering while sitting on small chairs in a shared space, and then went down to sit in the warm, bubbling, sulfurous water.

Baths are traditionally separated by gender, but this onsen allowed women to bathe in the men's pool (which was much bigger). Tradition also dictates to bathe naked, which we did, so when JaneAnn came to join us, we looked away for a moment as she took off her towel and stepped into the warm waters. The spa was wonderfully relaxing. Our entire bodies were at peace while in the water and for hours afterwards.

After relaxing for a little while on our room's 16 tatami mats (room sizes are traditionally defined by the number of tatamis they hold), we put on our slippers and headed to another room for what was a marvelous dinner.

Dinner is served...peekaboo!

The courses were served at a leisurely pace with plenty of beer and sake, and a small glass of plum wine with one pickled plum to start. A list of things we had includes 3 types of sashimi, pickled vegetables, beef shabu shabu served in a bamboo box, seafood soup in milk broth, shrimp dumpling and eggplant tempura, simple scallion lemon broth with chicken dumpling, rice with salty seaweed and small fish, and a number of items steamed in the hot springs served in a small straw house - potato, chicken wing, potato jelly. Dessert was a tasty Crème Caramel-like pudding also cooked in a steam vent.


Such satisfying sustenance. While eating our food, we shared many "mmm"s, "oooh"s, and "that's so good!"s. There was a phone at the table that allowed us privacy, but access to service in case we needed anything.

We arrived back in our room with our futons ready for a long, happy night of sleep. The sound of the hot springs in the background was like running water. I woke up to the sun rise.

Sunrise from our Onsen Window

We were served a traditional Japanese breakfast that morning, which included horse mackeral terikayi sushi, and a salad with a very good miso dressing, among other things.

As we took a bus back to the Beppu train station after another trip to the hot springs in the morning, we spoke about the color of the hot springs that morning. Dave (who's working/living in China) thought of a Chinese word to describe the color, and after some discussion later, we finally came up with the word for it in English: celadon. We joked about learning new English while in Japan; we are certainly seeing new things!

Beppu: Castle of the Golden Snake

Beppu was the location of our first onsen (hot spring spa), and a resort town for thousands of years. Its natural hot springs have been amazing tourists for more than a millennium. We left Hakata in the morning and took a local train to Beppu, which took a few hours. In Beppu, we met Koba, who had just flown in from Tokyo. Koba and Hiro had been friends since they were six! He would join us on our travels for the day and at the onsen that night.

During the day we visited Beppu's observatory, which is a fading structure by the ocean overlooking the town. It was built in 1957 and has seen better days. We then booked a tour guide/cabbie to take us around the town. We first visited a castle (the "castle of the golden snake"). It's a traditional structure built with a wonderful outlook on top of a hill.

Outside the building we were greeted by the former king of the place, a huge golden snake that had died some years ago.

As the story goes, people would come from Beppu and the surrounding area to give the snake their respects, and receive good luck. Who wouldn't want good fortune? People could gather both good fortune and wonderful views at this particular location. It happened to be a beautiful day out for us, so good fortune was apparently already with us.

We then took off our shoes, as is the custom in Japan, and entered the building. Before heading to the top for yet more impressive scenery, we were asked to sit down in the back of the second floor of the castle to meet the new master. An older couple was sitting there, the man with a huge golden snake at his lap, and the woman with some trinkets for sale at a little table. The new master snake was more than 9 feet long, and around 25 pounds. It eats one bird once a week.

The old man spoke to us in Japanese about the religiosity of the snake. I didn't understand what he said; my attention was focused on the huge snake itself. After we had asked our questions, he asked us to sit closer to the snake. Perhaps because I was the most "Geijin" of the crew, or perhaps because of my natural toughness (or so I'd like to think), he asked me to put my hands on the snake and kneel before it, which I did. Its scales were smooth and welcoming. Then, without warning, he put the snake around my neck in one quick motion, making a loud thwack! sound. He said a few words of prayer, and took the snake away.

I was surprised, as was everyone there save the old man's wife, but I think Jane Ann may have been the most surprised. The snake around the neck was meant to symbolize death, after which rebirth would bring good tidings. Having performed the ritual on me, he asked Jane Ann afterwards to go through the same death/rebirth, and she did it. I wondered if the myth of the Phoenix originated here. Later she said to her family that she had met with what she was most afraid of - a snake, up close and personal!

(Note: the old man said no pictures of the master, but Hiro got one before he said so. If someone reminds me, I'll link to it later)

At the top of the building, there were additional views that we enjoyed. Nothing like a snake around your neck to help you appreciate a beautiful day in a foreign land.

Here you can see the huge number of steam vents in Beppu.


This prepared us for what we would do next - visit the Nine Hells of Beppu. Our cabbie rode down from the hilltop towards the steam vents below.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Shinkansen to Hakata

From Speedy Efficiency

The Shinkansen puts the American Acela to shame. The Acela is worthy of shame for many reasons, mind you, the craziest of which is the gross negligence involved in building a train that can't run on existing tracks, and for which new tracks won't be created. But let me speak of my day. After packing our backpacks for the trip to come, and bringing our main luggage to the hotel we'll be staying at when we return to Tokyo, we arrived at the main train station to take a long 6-hour trip to Hakata. Along the way we would meet Dave, who flew into Osaka from Beijing, where he works at a nonprofit.

I was very happy to see that the woman who came through the car after each station had a yogurt drink I'd tried before.

From Mmmm

Tastiness. Japan is full of various drinkable concoctions, from Coca-Cola (no diet available here) to various energy drinks, juices, yogurt drinks. Vending machines here also have wine, beer, sake, and hard liquor. On the trip we passed Mt. Fuji. There weren't many clouds, so I managed a decent shot at around 175mph:

From Drop Box

Getting out of the train in Hakata brought a cool night and fresh air, which were a relief to our senses. In the night we visited food stalls along a main canal in town, which was a main attraction to the town. Hakata is known for its ramen, and we chose a stall that had the longest line of people waiting patiently on chairs outside its plastic covering. The food did not disappoint - the noodles were delicious, and we tried a beef tongue yakitori as well.

Later we walked around Hakata, and found ourselves quickly in what appeared to be yet another "red light district". This one was much more overt about it, though it appeared that none of the places were open for Geijin, or foreigners. Most of the places had women standing in front soliciting guests. As the night went on, we saw many drunken men whose hands were held by well-dressed women (some formally in kimonos, some in more modern clothing that might have been purchased in Shibuya). The conversations would always end with "arigato gozaimasu" and a polite bow. There were almost no women outside on these streets who were not soliciting, which was strange. Dave spoke to a few of them in chinese, and after getting over a surprise, they suggested places for us to go. We were looking for a simple bar.

What we found was a maid bar, which turned out to be a new experience, but not a strange affair. A maid bar is a place where women (in our case dressed up in a quasi-victorian look - black and white dresses that were cut long with frilly cloth at the bottom - of all things, puritans!). We sat there for half an hour and had a drink. Our maid did her best to speak to us in English. She was a sweet girl, perhaps around eighteen. Her personality seemed to stand out in the neighborhood, and spoke to us about her interests in anime and comics. This was experience that was definitely foreign. Alas, no pictures were allowed.

We also stopped at a yakitori place to get a little more food. With each completed order the cooks banged a drum that hung in the air:

From Yakitori

We had octopus, bacon, beef heart, ground chicken, mackeral, ginko, and a few others. Tasty, and new to me. After walking a little more, we went home to rest up.

This morning it's off to Beppu for an onsen. Woohoo!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Senso-ji and Ueno; quick post before the road

I have a few minutes to post a little bit about my day yesterday, as we are leaving to get some breakfast and head to the train station where we'll take the high-speed Shinkansen to Hakata. A 6-hour ride across countryside.

Yesterday, while Hiro was suited up at his company's Japan HQ, I visited the Akasaka and Ueno areas of Tokyo. Akasaka (ah cas ka, in case you'd like to pronounce it) has a famous Buddhist Temple, and many crowded, narrow streets full of shops of different kinds.

From Ceiling of Senso-ji

From Harmony and Wisdom

I had a tasty lunch of Gyoza (dumplings) and Asahi "Super Dry" beer, then headed to Ueno. It's a big park with various museums and sights. I watched a dance troupe do cartwheels as they hurled a yoyo-like device into the air.

At the end of the day I headed back to Shibuya where I met JaneAnn, who will be traveling with us across the country. She's full of energy and seemingly unaffected by jet lag! She gets to travel Japan for a week while her husband takes care of their kids. Not a bad deal she has...we had some sushi, and had a great, open conversation. We had a drink with Hiro when he got back from a long day at the office, where he met the honchos at his company, and then it was off to sleep.

And so another day begins...

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I'll be going about 175mph while you're waking up, and I'll be sleeping while you're probably gorging on Turkey. Cheers! :)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A full day; a red parasol

From Drop Box

Tuesday was a full day in Tokyo. After checking out the shop scene in Shibuya, we met Hiro's friend Chia and his brother Yosuke around Shinjuku for lunch. We had a rich ramen w/gyoza, and I tried a plum-flavored alcoholic drink. We spent a little walking around the area - we saw the commercial side of Shinjuku, which was crowded. It was a national holiday in Japan, so a lot of people were out. The holiday is something like our "Labor Day", which apparently means spending the fruits of your Labor The streets were crowded with people.

I commented to Chia on the various noises that the people here must be used to - trucks with anime pictures advertising something were playing happy anime music, an automated voice spoke periodically of the need to cross the street before the light change. This is a place where people tend to follow the rules and remain focused despite the quantity of sensory inputs around them.

We walked over towards the observatory at the pretty city government complex. On our way we passed ginko trees situated proudly in front of a number of office buildings. They don't have the best smell in the world; I wonder if that's one reason they came to be favored in traditional medicine. It would take, and therefore encourage, an effort of spirit to sit under one. The city government complex consists of two towers attached halfway to the top overlooking Shibuya park, which was in colorful autumn bloom, and out across the sprawl of Tokyo. The view was nice from 45 stories up, but Mt Fuji was clouded over in the distance.
From Drop Box

We walked to the Meiji Shrine after that. The day had been full of crowded streets and colorful shops; it was almost an affront to the senses. The Shrine park was completely different. A large sign represented the royal crest at the entrance to a shady park path - Chrysanthemum. The park was cool and shaded by old trees, and was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle and potential sensory overload of the shop areas.

The shrine itself was beautiful. At 3 and 7 years for girls, and 3 and 5 years for boys, children are brought by their parents to give their respects at the temple in search of good tidings. A number of kids were dressed up in kimonos, as well as some older people.

From Drop Box

In the center of the temple, we saw a wedding procession, where the bride was covered with a pretty red parasol.

Later in the day we met with two of Hiro's other old friends - Masumi and Tomo. We intended to go do karaoke with them, but there wasn't time, and so we sat down at a restaurant near Shibuya to get some plum wine and appetizers. They had perhaps 20 kinds of plum wine, and we tried 6 or 7...tasty, every one :). Masumi is a floral designer who had taken classes for floral design at Parsons in NY, and Tomo works in finance and JP Morgan. As Chia before them, they were extremely nice people.

Finally, after a number of coffees to keep ourselves awake, we made our way to Kudanshita where we met with Yosuke again and walked to their family's house. Hiro's mom wanted to have us over for dinner. We spoke there of the North/South Korean conflict, and some of the culture of Japan - how Japan did not have a military, and over time had just come to assume someone else would take care of their problems (for example the Kuril Islands Dispute. In a recession, especially with the US overextended, that won't be so easy. Dinner was a tasty pork bun, wonderfully spiced, with a simple soup that had potatoes, egg, turnip, and a number of types of fish cake.

At long last Hiro and I made it back to our hotel around 11 to have a quick drink and get some sleep.

This morning I'm on my own - and refreshed! Hiro has to do some work at his company's Tokyo office, and I'm off to seek another day...

Monday, November 22, 2010


It seems 75% of the people in the Shibuya area are girls. One reason might be the shiny and creative clothes in the area. Almost every person in the 5-story mall were girls - this shop was typical. There were also shops called "Love Girls" and "Titties". Indeed. There seems to be a theme here...

There is no walk. There is only run.

I've arrived safely in Tokyo! Fourteen is a large number for hours on one flight, but though I was tired when I arrived, I was also giddy. Not sleeping can be great fun for the giddy reward, and the giddiness has lasted into my 30th hour with little sleep. Cheers to me.

Customs was cake, and part of a larger efficient greeting in Tokyo. Hiro at one point exclaimed "everyone runs in the airport!" to prod me along as I was falling behind with my two bags. I responded with the words of wisdom that are the title of the post. We decided to take a bus into Shibuya, where our hotel is located, waiting only a few minutes at the airport. The bus was perfectly on time. At each airport stop, the staff bowed low to the bus as it left. I couldn't help but think of ghosts and the spirit world - the passing bus spirit had to be given its due, or the ghosts of buses past might get angry. Threads from my vague tracings of Japanese culture perhaps, or maybe the thought was just a combination of tourstic hospitality and a giddy mind. Everyone has certainly seemed thankful, bowing often and saying "arigato gozaimasu".

Shibuya is a bit like Times Square, but instead of overweight midwesterners, it's full of young, well-dressed Japanese. Hiro tells me much of it used to be seedy, but now it's full of arcades and karaoke bars and restaurants and shops. The curving, cobblestone streets add to the appeal of the place. As we walked a few blocks further away, a woman quickly up to me as we were strolling saying "massage?"...pause, walking closer..."cute girls! cute girls!"...pause, closer still..."sex! sex! sex!". I walked away. There were a number of places advertising massages - a little bit of red light in the cobblestone streets.

Random thoughts:
Cigarettes are around 400 yen. You can buy them in vending machines everywhere, and smoke them in plastic hotboxes on the streets. Nicotine addiction is an efficient process too here it seems.

At 9:32pm EST, just past Alaska, the sun shined brightly as I looked down through my window. The clouds were like bright patches of coral in an ocean of sky. The sun was shining from takeoff in NY until just before we touched down in the land of the rising sun. Now it's time for a well-earned sleep. Oyasumi. BlogBooster-The most productive way for mobile blogging. BlogBooster is a multi-service blog editor for iPhone, Android, WebOs and your desktop

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

5, 7, 5

unfettered Japan:
I will capture its bright spirit
with daily haiku