Japan 2017

Day One:

We arrived back in Tokyo a little more than three years after our first visit.  Last time, almost all Tokyo.  This time, we spend a little time in Tokyo, and much time in the rest of the country traveling by Bullet Train ending up in Okinawa.  Today, it was all Tokyo … a little of the Ginza district, then on to Harajuku, teenage and fashion center of the city, and a great bowl of Ramen with a Santory beer.  Then, a little time in Shijuku train station and the Isetan department store to wait out the rain and then back to our hotel at Tokyo Station.  These are some of day one’s sites.

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Tomorrow, Hakone by bullet.

Hakone:

Day two took us from the Tokyo Station on the Bullet Train to Hakone, and a day with our guide, Shin.  Shinkensen (the bullet train) travels at 160 miles per hour and as Zac said, man was not meant to go that fast on tracks.  But it does.  The lead car, to me, looks like a duck beak.  The train is cleaned by a crew – pink for women, blue for men.  Hakone is in the mountains very near Mt. Fuji, so it was a day of mountain hikes (very cold and snowy), Cherry blossoms, ancient royal castles, and Shinto shrines in the mountains.  The Shinto religion is native to Japan and celebrates nature.  Mt. Fuji is therefore important.   It is a plus 12K mountain that is extremely broad at its base.  It comes and goes on the horizon depending on cloud cover.  The day was all about the Japanese word:  “do” (pronounced doe) – one’s path.  

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Tomorrow, Nagano.

Day 3 – Nagano

Another day, another trip on Shinkansen, this time to Nagano.  This is another mountainous region of Japan where we found many feet of snow and hiked to hot springs where Japanese snow monkeys come down to bathe.  I was not sure what to expect but what we saw was magical — many, many snow monkeys, some with babies on board, made their way to the springs where, much like we humans would, they bathed in the hot, steamy waters.  We passed apple orchards with mountain backdrops, and then headed to a Buddhist enclave of temples from ancient times, great ice cream, and then we ended up at a Sake brewery.  Not as many people today as the monkeys stole the show.

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next up, Kanazawa.

Day 4 – Kanazawa:

On Day 3’s eve, we picked up Dan Zhang, Zac’s high school and college friend, who is teaching English in China.  Dan will travel the rest of the way with us.  The 4 of us then got the typical Tokyo train station breakfast, french bakery food on the run, and boarded the bullet for Kanazawa.  Almost 3 hours later (it would have been a more than 6 hour car ride), we arrived, and we were met by our guide for the afternoon.  The Kanazawa train station is built like a futuristic erector set.  There, we saw a TV interview and then onto the Kanazawa gardens with plum trees beginning to bloom, traditionally dressed men and women strolling, Shinto shrines, and a feudal castle built by the Samarai for the lord who they guarded before the period of peace began in the 1600’s.  We also visited two Samarai houses and had Japanese tea ceremony with our traditionally garbed female host.  Then, a short walk through the Kanawaza alleys to a bus (fare 2 – 200 yen) and then back to the train station and on to Kyoto where we stayed.  Zac and Dan’s room was traditional Japanese – no shoes.  Next, on to Hiroshima.

For all of the rigidity and rituals of the Japanese way of life, they are an incredibly peaceful, quiet people, with a sense of tradition and history that is remarkable, and they are very welcoming to Westerners.  We have only been asked about American politics twice, but it is on their minds and all we can say is that we and they will live through the next 4 years and be ok.  They seem good with that but they are worried about North Korea and want to know if we are at Japan’s side or not.  Silly, unplanned amateur tweets are not helpful in this world.  Everyone reads them and Japanese think/expect that as Americans, we can explain the crack-of-dawn tweet barrage.  This will likely be my only political venture for the blog.

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Kyoto (briefly) and Hiroshima

We only stayed in Kyoto overnight but the first image is an iconic part of its skyline.  And, the second image is the famous Kyoto train station.  It is a wonder that is hard to capture its size and grandeur in a photograph.  Then, on to Hiroshima on the eve faster Nozomi line.  The third image is the Hiroshima train station (Hiroshima ecki, in  Japanese).  From the train station, we bussed our way over to the Peace Park (passing an entertaining hotel).  the Park is home of the Industrial Promotion Hall approximately 600 meters above which the first atomic bomb was detonated.  200,000 people died virtually immediately and the entire city went from vibrant to rubble instantly.  The remains of the building form the hub of the park around which there are smaller memorials and offerings.  The Peace Park is a series of contrasts.  First, it tries to make sense out of an event about which there can be no sense.  Second, you find people at the park who look at the Hall, and those who cannot, and who pray and who do not, and who cry, and who just pass by, and who meditate, and who protest, and who gather to remember, and who meet friends and who bring young ones.  The point of the park is not unlike ground zero, or the Holocaust Museum – a theme of “never forget.”  It is moving, but difficult to take in, as it is supposed to be.  

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Day 6 – Miyajima

Today, a train to a ferry and on to the island of Miyajima, off the coast of Hiroshima where wild deer roam through the town and are quite friendly.  On the island, we hiked some 6 miles through the little village to the top of Misen Mountain and then down to a “ropeway” which is a two part tramway.  On the way up, many Shinto Shrines, a five story Pagoda, and many natives enjoying the wonderful Sunday weather. It was all quite beautiful and we greeted many families on the walk with a simple “konichiwa” said in a sing song kind of way, and all of whom replied in kind. 

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Fukuoka and Okinawa

On to Fukuoka on the Shinkansen to meet Loren’s veterinary friend and colleague, Taka, and then to the airport by subway to catch a plane to Okinawa.  First, Fukuoka – a rainy day but we still caught our first, non-tourist Shinto Shrine after Spring Break where students had prayed for good luck to pass their tests.  The cherry blossoms had begun and the shrine also served as a market / meet up place for the locals.

Then a meal, 

and on to Okinawa by plane.  In Okinawa, we landed, took a monorail to our hotel, 

and the next day, we met Atsushi, his lovely wife, and their 2 year old son – Sonnybo – where we cooked together in their apartment and had a typical Okinawa meal for lunch of Bitter melon, pork, rice, tofu, miso with brown sugar sauce, and assorted other dishes.  One thing we love to do when we travel is to meet locals such as Atsushi.  Cooking in their apartment with them and spending a few hours talking makes you realize that the world is a smaller place than we sometimes think and people are not all that different in their hopes and wishes.  We hope Atsushi and his family will visit us in the Rockies.  Sonnybo is way cute – don’t you think?

Then on to to the airport for a drive across the tarmac (actually very cool),

and onwards for our helicopter trip out on the ocean to buzz over the islands that lie just off Okinawa (in rained but it  was still beautiful),

then back to the hotel for some dinner fare in town at a local haunt (saki on the wall but we drank beer):

and today, back to the mainland as we begin to head to Tokyo for the Friday return to the states.  I have two other random shots that follow.  Neither is great, but the story is:  the first is a harp player we heard in Tokyo and the second, on our trip to Kyoto, we had the good fortune to sit next to 4 Geisha girls.  The are typically very stealth so the notion that they traveled in full gear is pretty surprising, let alone that we saw them.  The bad news:  I chickened out and did not ask to photograph them so I had to steal a shot while they slept (I actually practiced how to ask them in Japanese so the chicken out part was epic).  So, I have no Geisha face shot unfortunately. 

Oki to Fuku to Hiro

Long day of traveling from Okinawa to Fukuoka on a 767 and then to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen.  In Hiroshima,  arrived to a sunset and then had a bottle of Japanese Chardonnay and Wagyu beef (the beef cattle that are massaged by the farmers for more tenderness – for real).  The wine was great and the beef, while very expensive, was memorable.   Dan headed back to China this morning to hugs and good wishes; it was so great to see him; and we are now just a threesome again (San).   

Back to Tokyo

We are back in Tokyo for our last 24 hours.  Last sushi tonite, followed by an after dark walk around the Ginza.  It is hard to describe the visual excitement of Tokyo at night.  It is like Times Square but much more so, and it is everywhere not just in one district.  It is fun to stroll and photograph because it is so lit up and colorful and alive.  Each store and  building and sign is more lit up and colorful than the next as if in a competition.  People here do not just walk with a purpose but they hustle and scurry.  They pour out of the train station into the Ginza in wave after wave of bodies.  The lights and colors await them as the surface from the trains below.  Here are a few shots:

Last day in Tokyo:

Our last day in Japan before we ran for the train to Narita Airport and the journey back to Denver.  We took a subway to one of many urban parks within Tokyo.  The cherry blossoms have just begun in Tokyo.  There were painters recording the scenes.  The park is at the base of a baseball stadium that houses the Tokyo Giants.  Then back to Tokyo Metro and a quick walk to the Imperial Gardens where Japan’s emperor resides.