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Japan Part II – Temples, Toilets, Trains, and Taxis

December 2, 2008

img_7674.jpgTemples

The number and beauty of the temples and shrines in Japan is a bit overwhelming. As tourists visiting Japan for a short time, just reading our guidebooks and other tourist information, it is clear that we don’t even begin to understand or appreciate their meaning and importance to the Japanese people. Kyoto alone has literally hundreds of them and we only scratched the surface during our short stay in this wondrous country. Couples, families, school children, retirees all flocked to Kamakura south of Tokyo to view the many temples there on the holiday weekend, including the famous, massive bronze Buddha included in the pictures below. They approach each one, purifying their hands with water flowing out into scoops, waft incense over themselves, light candles, throw coins into special boxes, squeeze through a square hole in a wooden support beam, strike a massive bowl with a wooden mallet and in other ways make their prayers and pay their respects. Perhaps it is not so odd or mystical, but having been raised with Christianity, I found it a bit hard to grasp. The simple answer is probably because it is different. But, if one really stops to think, how different is it really? Large ornate buildings, altars, incense, prayer and reverence. Sounds pretty much the same after all. Well, here are some pictures.

Toilets

Yes, this topic has been covered by many, many before us. But, the Japanese approach to toilets is quite different and interesting. First, there is the traditional Japanese “squat potty”. Then there is the modern approach with the toilet seat that does it all. It warms, washes and strangely makes artificial flushing noises. Those noises we found were only featured in the women’s bathrooms, supposedly to help them avoid others hearing noises that might cause embarrassment. Finally, and this one might have been useful during Durham’s drought, they feature a faucet on the top of the tank that allows you to wash your hands as the water fills the tank. Not sure it would make a dent in our drought problem, but it sure makes sense.

In the same category, but much more interesting really, are the Japanese style baths. We had them in a Ryokan outside of Tokyo and in a youth hostel in Nara. The ones we used were certainly not the finest in Japan, but enjoyable nonetheless. I don’t think we have been as clean and rested on our entire trip as we were after taking a bath Japanese style. The Ryokan was a clear favorite stay and Jack was completely taken with Japanese style rooms, nearly suffering a breakdown in Hiroshima when we were pondering a western style room with bunk beds and room for 5 or a small Japanese room, really meant for 4. Some family togetherness followed as who knows when we will be back in Japan to sleep on a tatami mat. Jack was happy!

Trains

All hail the Japan Rail Pass, the best, easiest and most economical way to see Japan. Of course, the rail system itself, with clockwork like operations, is the real star. Ainsley and I set our watches to the Japan Rail clock when we arrived and the trains were rarely any more than 30 or 40 seconds off during our entire stay. The Shinkansen were sleek, fast and wonderfully exciting, especially for the boys.

Taxis

Here is one Tokyo treat that we just observed. They are fantastically expensive on a scale of taxi expenses. The “flag fall” fo just getting in is over $7 USD. The taxi ride from Narita to central Tokyo is $250 USD. No wonder they are spotlessly clean, luxurious looking and there wasa pair of white gloves on the front seat of one in Kyoto.

Other Things and Hong Kong

The pictures that follow are some favorites and also show a bit from our flight into Hong Kong. The views are from the top of Miyajima Island near Hiroshima. The hike up was fantastic and the views of Hiroshima and the Inland Sea were as well. Mt Fuji is truly spectacular and it is easy to understand why so many people seek to climb it each year. The Hong Kong skyline was stunning on our approach and then we entered a thick, very thick area of haze, human induced I’m sure. The air in the city is pretty harsh on the lungs. We’ll enjoy our time here, but it is so crowded and busy that we’ll be happy to move on.

Update - Happy Thanksgiving

November 26, 2008

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UPDATE - We have resolved our flight plans from Tokyo and are no longer going directly to Bangkok as you might imagine. The airport is still in the control of anti-government protesters with no quick resolution in sight. After countless hours on the phone with AA and JAL we now have tickets to fly to Hong Kong on Tuesday, December 2nd on JAL and we then fly to Phnom Penh, Cambodia on DragonAir (Cathay Pacific) on Friday, December 5th. Cambodia was on our list of places we really wanted to visit and we may be able to go into Thailand via an overland route. We’ll keep you up to date on how our plans develop from here.

Jen thanks for your advice and words of encouragement. You are right on target and we really appreciate your sharing your wisdom.

I’ll try to post more about the rest of our stay in Japan, which has been great. We are in Hiroshima now, but return by train to Tokyo today.  In the meantime here is a picture of the kids with a bunch of school girls. Just as in Ecuador and Peru, other children, especially girls, seem to flock to Eliot and Jack. They all want pictures taken with them.

boys-and-girls.jpg

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone back home and we wish we could eat some turkey with you.

Right now we are in Nara, one of the true cultural centers of Japanese history. We are enjoying our stay, but are focused a bit on the current protests in Thailand, our next stop. The Bangkok airport is occupied by anti-government protesters and is shut down. We are scheduled to fly there in 5 days and are actively exploring alternative destinations. We’ll keep everyone posted about our plans.

Next stop is Hiroshima. All for now!

Gardens, Noodles, Fish, Cleanliness and Advanced Planning

November 24, 2008

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Here we are in Japan, hard to believe South America is over and that we are actually here!

Here’s a picture of the kids in Japanese attire from our Ryokan last evening.

kids-in-robes.jpg

Wow, we knew that Japan would be different, but we didn’t really appreciate how different. Perhaps it is the fact that Tokyo is the largest city in the world, or that they use a language with characters we don’t recognize, or that the trains and streets are spotless. Whatever the reason, our first two days have been fascinating.

Advanced Planning

I’ll tackle the Advanced Planning part first. All throughout South America we shot from the hip, enjoying the freedom and flexibility that comes with that approach. From a practical perspective it also allows us to focus on the present experience rather than focusing on planning future days and weeks. The success of that came to a grinding halt in Japan. We had the first two nights booked, but weren’t aware (dumb us!) that the following days were part of a three-day holiday weekend during which it seems the entire Japanese population heads out to enjoy the fall leaves. (No mention of this being a difficult time for reservations in our trusty guidebook, which only suggested calling ahead for reservations.) So, we spent the better part of our first day shuttling between the Tourist Information Center and a travel agency in search of accommodations, any accommodations. The very helpful and polite ladies in the tourist center finally found us somewhere to stay and were probably laughing inside at the stupidity of the American family standing in front of them. The end result is that we are spending more days in Tokyo than planned. Things could have been worse (Ainsley was angling for a stay in one of Japan’s infamous “Capsule Hotels”).

Gardens

On our way back from finding a place to stay we visited Rikugien Gardens. The sun was getting low and the leaves are turning now, which made for a great time to visit. The kids have gained an appreciation for gardens from Duke Gardens in Durham, and for Japanese culture in general from Kelli’s good friend and nipponophile Nancy (thanks Nance!!!) and the many great culturally oriented programs at Club Boulevard Elementary School. They really enjoyed the visit and here are some pictures.

Noodles

Jack in particular has been eagerly awaiting Japanese noodles and was really excited after Kelli reported finding a noodle shop nearby on one of her walks after she heard the tell-tale sound of slurping resonating from inside. So, yesterday we set out to find it again. Kelli said that she probably wouldn’t be able to recognize it unless it had the same line of people waiting outside. Sure enough, the line was there and we took up our spot in the queue. You might ask why the line? The simple answer of course is that the food is really good, which it was. The other answer is that it is a one-man show. One cook, that’s all. No one else. That means that there are only 8 seats and 8 diners at one time. The wait in the end wasn’t too long as Japanese diners eat their noodles with some urgency, slurping all the way. (The acceptance of slurping also made Jack happy!)

As we waited in the line we began to wonder how to order, so we sidled up to the window to check things out. To our surprise, we found everyone first stopping at a vending machine by the front door. (We shouldn’t have been surprised because vending machines really are everywhere in Japan.) The machine was stocked with various colored and priced rectangular plastic chips. The chips were accompanied by the all too unfamiliar and unintelligible (at least to us) Japanese script. We were at the mercy of either following those in front of us or finding someone to translate. In the end, we used both techniques and learned that everyone was ordering only the navy blue chip, which meant ramen noodles with pork. A few people added some of the other less expensive chips, but we honestly couldn’t see what difference that made. We also learned how to ask for extra vegetables for free.

When our turn came we purchased our 4 navy blue chips and one by one began to take our seats (after filling our own water glasses). The show was then on and everyone watched the noodle chef follow his consistent method for assembling each bowl. From there we enjoyed each and every slurp.

Fish

Yesterday we took advantage of our early awakening hour, as we continue to adjust to the time change, and headed out to the famous Tokyo Fish Market. This is the largest fish market in the world and was a place of orchestrated chaos, with a few tourists thrown in for good measure. Fish, people and vehicles were moving in all directions at all times. We held on to little hands and did our best to avoid being run over. The whole scene was so fascinating and foreign. Here’s a brief peek at what it was like.

Jack in particular was a bit overcome and saddened by the experience. This was probably driven by the connection he made to the world-wide over-fishing documentary we saw in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Eliot couldn’t wait to go and get away from that “fish smell.” Ainsley was ready as always to move on to the next thing.

Cleanliness

This last part is simply a story, but one that we found to be an excellent example of the Japanese culture of cleanliness. (This is certainly a country that GG would like!)

This story took place on one of the many train rides that we have already taken during our short stay. We boarded a train and found a number of open seats, which upon closer examination were open only because of a spill of a thick orange liquid (orange juice perhaps?) on the floor in front of them. We, like most others, backed away. Then one young gentleman (maybe 25 years old) approached the seat, saw the spill and proceeded to pull out his travel package of facial tissues. He then dropped them one by one on to the spill and carefully mopped it up, being sure not to touch the liquid with his fingers. When the spill was fully absorbed he placed the tissues in a plastic bag and carried it off the train. The seats were now fine for others to use. The mess was obviously not his problem, but he felt compelled to make the train a cleaner place for everyone. Wow! Jack was very impressed and moved toward the man to say arigato with a bow. I can’t think of anywhere else in the world where this would have happened. Welcome to Japan!

…..not quite!

June 23, 2008

We plan to go here, but haven’t yet arrived. Take a look at the map at the top right side of the home page to see where we are and the “Where?” page for where we intend to go.