Monthly Archives: September 2016

Kanazawa Flowahs

Sorry, but do you have any idea how hard it is to make a pun on the name “Kanazawa”? The title actually refers (badly) to our first stop of the day, Kanazawa’s Kenroku-en Garden. Now, I have to confess that for me personally, a garden is a garden. Alice, who is an avid gardener and appreciates these things, probably feels differently. But the Japanese, being Japanese, take pride in complicating this simple concept to a degree that I suspect is designed to make Westerners feel guilty if they don’t know what the hell the Japanese are talking about. In this case, the name of the garden literally means “six attributes”. I have also seen it translated as “six sublimities”, which I am not even convinced is a word. The six attributes are those that, to Japanese thinking, constitute the ideal landscape. They are: spaciousness, seclusion, artifice, antiquity, waterways, and panoramas. So if you do not identify and appreciate these six factors, you are philosophically deficient. That’s definitely me. But it was nonetheless a very compact, beautiful park — 29 acres, dating from 1871 — dotted with exactly the kind of serene Japanese vistas you would expect, like these.

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Today had by far the nicest weather we have had on this trip, so it was a good day to go strolling in a garden. Our tour lead Mariko even dressed for the occasion, sporting a casual kimono for the day instead of her usual Western garb.

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We moved from the garden to our next stop, which was the restored house of a semi-prominent Edo-era samurai, Kurando Terashima. Terashima was basically a mid-level functionary who pissed off the wrong people and died in exile, though he did achieve some fame as a painter as well. The house is spare, its interior architecture all rectangular spaces with paper walls and tatami mats, and it looks out over a small, precise garden, in appearance and ambiance a greatly scaled-down version of Kenroku-en.

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I have been struck by the fact that when discussing houses like this, or indeed any housing at all, the unit of measurement is the tatami mat. You know what it is — a straw mat, basically, though its construction is actually rather more elaborate — but probably never knew its role as some kind of universal standard.  An official tatami mat is 33.5″ x 70.5″ (85.5 x 179 cm), and when someone is describing a room to you (e.g., Mariko describing her apartment), she will tell you that it is, say, 8 tatamis.   Since Japanese living spaces tend to be rectangular, you can assume that she means 4 tatamis by 2 tatamis. (Either that, or it’s a very long skinny apartment.) And so the brochures for the late Terashima-san’s home state that there is a 5 tatami tea room, an 8 tatami room where he painted, and so forth. Japan is on the metric system except when it comes to interior design, where it is on the tatami system.

This very traditional way of thinking gives me a cheap segue into the subject of geishas. Yes, they still exist for real, not just for tourists. (And no, they are in no way prostitutes, though you probably already knew that.) But they are a vanishing breed. Kanazawa has only 43, of which 14 live in the so-called geisha district, which looks like this:

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The district is home to both geisha houses — of which there are only seven left — and jewelry stores specializing in gold (about which more in a moment). The very traditional nature of the neighborhood makes it a popular place to stroll in traditional garb, thus:kanazawa-geisha-district-007 kanazawa-geisha-district-003

The pair in the lower picture are newlyweds, who were in the neighborhood with their wedding photographer.

Mariko had been in contact with the owner of one of the geisha houses, this rather elegant lady.

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She introduced herself to us, in soft-spoken, accented but precise English, as Lady Baba (“Not Lady Gaga,” she added.) as she explained the system. She owns the elegantly outfitted house (no, I don’t know how many tatamis it is) and hires the individual geishas on a freelance basis. All of her customers are either known to her personally or vouched for by an existing customer. No money changes hands during a visit; customers are billed semi-annually. (And if a customer fails to pay up, then the person who recommended him is held responsible for the debt.) Everything is all very tasteful and on the up-and-up, but discretion is nonetheless absolute since the geisha house is the venue for, e.g., closing business deals. In such a case the geisha is basically a social lubricant, keeping the men happy with conversation, jokes, and playing traditional musical instruments.

The geishas themselves are supposed to be a bit mysterious, with anything about their backgrounds or outside life kept hidden from the customers. It is perfectly permissible for them to be married, but such information is secret since their allure is correspondingly diminished. Although “allure” is probably the wrong word; the attraction is social, not sexual, and though the youngest a geisha may be is 18 years old, there is no upper age limit. Indeed, the oldest geisha who works for Lady Baba — and who by virtue of her conversational, entertainment, and musical skills is one of the most sought-after in her ranks — is 84 years old. (Are you reading this, Mom?)

Because of the traditional nature of the business, and the geisha houses’ status as cultural touchstones, ownership of a house can only be passed on to a daughter who is willing to carry on the tradition. Lady Baba is in a bind in this regard: she has a 12 year old daughter who (at least for now) has no interest in taking over the house when she is older: quite to the contrary, the child has announced her intention of moving to California and marrying a rich American. This leaves Lady Baba with three options: (1) talk her daughter into changing her mind (she’s still only 12, after all); (2) adopt another daughter who would be willing to take over the house (this is a real option); or (3) sell the house. For the moment, Lady Baba is banking on the first option.

She answered all of our questions with great charm and forthrightness, then demonstrated how she ties her kimono sash, which as you’d probably expect is all very elaborate.

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The whole experience was rather remarkable. The whole geisha concept is a throwback, but there is no denying the stratospheric level of social grace that the practitioners command. Lady Baba was very, very smooth: engaging, charming, self-deprecating, gracious, the whole works: when your livelihood depends on delicate social interaction, you get really good at working a room.

We finished up with everyone taking pictures of themselves with her (yes, us too), so I’ll close my geisha discussion with this more pensive portrait that she let me set up.

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Our final stop of the day was one of the gold jewelers in the area. These particular craftsmen (and -women) specialize in gold leaf, which they produce on spectacular quantity and with spectacular thinness.

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The sheets are so thin, and thus the quantity of gold that they contain so small, that they can use it for just about anything without driving the cost too high. Alice bought a fan covered in gold leaf; and I have now, for the first and probably only time in my life , had the privilege of peeing in a bathroom whose walls were literally completely covered in gold. Donald Trump would approve.

Oof. I can’t possibly end this post with that sentence. So I will close by observing that we had sushi for dinner.

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Faster Than a… Oh, You Know

It is possible to get from Hakone to Kanazawa (our next destination) by shinkansen (bullet train) but this requires backtracking to Tokyo. So our travel itinerary for today was to travel by bullet train from Hakone to Nagano, then by conventional rail to Kanazawa. The numbers are revealing: we covered the 175 miles from Hakone to Nagano in an hour and ten minutes by shinkansen, but the remaining 145 miles took three hours. In other words, the bullet train is fast. Very fast.

We arrived at the Hakone rail station at a little before 10 AM, leaving us with enough time to hang around on the platform for a few minutes and watch the bullet trains pass through. Not two minutes after we arrived on the platform, someone looking down the length of the track said, “Look, here comes one.” “Oh good,” I thought, turning on my camera, “I’ll be able to get a pic-

FWOOOOOOOOOOSH

-ture.” HOLY MOTHER OF ZORK, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?

“That”, of course, was a shinkansen, a blue-and-white blur passing our platform about 8 feet away from us. It was gone by the time I got my lens cap off, and I stood there frozen like an idiot. Then I took another few seconds to pick up my jaw off the floor; that thing passing next to the platform was the transportation equivalent of a bomb going off, absolutely stunning. Fortunately there were some other tracks farther away from us so over the next several minutes it was possible to get some shots at a distance from which it was physically possible for me to push the shutter button in time.

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“Race ya!”

The shinkansen has a cruising speed of 300 km/hr (186 mph), though the one that took me by surprise was probably not even going that fast since it was passing through a station. There are 16 cars whose total length including the engine is just about a quarter mile (404 m, to be exact). At its cruising speed, therefore, the train covers its own length in 4.8 seconds. It can carry roughly 1000 people.

The ride is quiet and very smooth, far smoother in fact than a conventional train, and with none of the traditional side-to-side rocking that one normally associates with train travel. That smoothness is not just a passenger convenience, but rather a physical requirement: at those speeds, a bump equals a catastrophic derailment.

After transferring to a run-of-the-mill express train (which, the name notwithstanding, made 13 stops en route) we reached our destination at about 3 PM. Kanazawa is the historical epicenter of the samurai culture, and so like Kyoto is known for its Shinto shrines. It’s a modern city overall, with a population of about half a million, and like many other Japanese cities with long histories takes some pains to integrate the old and the new.

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By the time we settled in to the hotel there was not a lot of time to explore, but on the way to dinner, just down the road, Mariko led us to the Oyama Jinja shrine, a relatively recent (mid-19th century) shrine distinguished by having stained glass and, oddly, sporting the first lightning rod ever installed in Japan. You can see both in this picture. (The stained glass is behind the upper balcony, below the cupola.)

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Behind the shrine is a small, classical Japanese garden, complete with stone lanterns and burbling brook filled with koi. We spent about a half hour wandering among these scenes:

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It was a gratifyingly serene way to end a day of train travel, and the topper was our first non-Japanese dinner since joining up with the tour group a week ago. Mariko led us to an underground promenade lined with appealing-looking eating places of various descriptions, and we dined at an Italian restaurant. The relatively small portion size and artistic presentation on the plate were definite Japanese accents to what was otherwise a very typical (to Americans) and quite good Italian meal. No doubt we will revert to native cuisine tomorrow.

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Hakone in the Mist

Man does not live on hot springs baths alone, so the original plan for today was to include a short cruise on Lake Ashi, the scenic lake on whose shores Hakone sits. It became clear pretty quickly that that wasn’t going to happen, because it was this kind of day:

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On and off drizzle, wind, and heavy fog rolling in off the lake made the prospect of a cruise pretty unappealing. The boat operators thought so too: the cruise was canceled as our bus pulled into the parking lot. However, our tour lead is nothing if not flexible, and so the day’s itinerary was immediately reshuffled accordingly.

Our first stop thus became Narukawa Art Museum, a privately-owned museum that sits above the shores of the lake and offers a commanding view of it. Today the view was more opaque than commanding, although if you like fog you would have been impressed. The museum’s collection is small and pleasant to browse, almost all contemporary stuff in a spare, almost Scandinavian setting.

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A guide gave us a short presentation about the collection and some of the artists’ techniques, and we were turned loose for an hour or so on our own.

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As you can tell from that last photo, the Japanese are heavily into ridiculously detailed carvings, frequently out of a single piece of marble, or jade, or whatever. A raging case of OCD is a big plus if you are in this line of work. Speaking of which…

Our next stop was the workshop and store of a nationally-recognized master of marquetry, which I confess is a word that I had never heard before. You know what it is, but in case you didn’t know what it was called either, Google defines it as “inlaid work made from small pieces of variously colored wood or other materials, used chiefly for the decoration of furniture.” If you go to Google Images you will immediately recognize it as this stuff:

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I had never really thought about how it is made, but the process and skill are level are extraordinary. The craftsman basically shapes short (an inch or two, sometimes more) rods of different types of wood — each with its unique color — such that their cross sections represent every shape in the final image, then fits and glues them together like a thick jigsaw puzzle. He then cuts slices through the assemblage to make multiple copies of the finished image. In some cases those slices are as thin as a piece of paper; he uses a wood plane to shave off a slice of absolutely uniform paper-thinness. There are no paints or dyes or used; all of the colors are the natural wood. And even the most finely detailed features in the image, which look they have been drawn on using a pen, are made using microscopically think slices of wood, shaped with a jigsaw whose blade looked to be about the thickness of a human hair. It was a very, very impressive demonstration, and here is the master in action (using a wood plane):

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In addition to planar objects such as coasters and hangings, he also makes bowls like the one you see in the foreground. You can see that it is resting on a glued-together stack of cylinders (they are actually triangular, hexagonal, and octagonal in cross section); the bowl is created by carving (i.e., hollowing out) a stack like that one. And he also makes puzzle boxes — you know, those fancy wooden boxes with hidden panels that you have to find in slide in the right order to open it. He makes phenomenally complex ones: he demonstrated one that required seven steps — and I swear there was not a seam to be felt — then held up one that required fifty. He said the most complex that he had seen required — wait for it — seventy-two steps to open. I mean jeez, it would take you 20 minutes to open the damn thing even if you had correctly memorized all the steps. And if you haven’t, well, I can promise you that the only way you ever going to see the inside of that box is with a saw or a sledge hammer.

And speaking of wood, Hakone is also known for having a small cedar forest. There is an easy strolling path along its edge, adjacent to the historical road that connects Osaka to Tokyo. On this misty, drizzly day the forest looked like this:

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The trees are tall and the place feels ancient, rather like Muir Woods with its redwoods.

Our final stop of the day was another art museum, the Hakone Open Air Museum. It is, fortunately, not entirely outdoors since the weather had not yet started cooperating. It comprises three very modern gallery buildings spread out over a park-like area criscorssed by poaths that connect the buildings and dotted with sculptures by (to our surprise) very famous Western artists: Henry Moore, Brancusi, Giacometti, Modigilani. And one of the gallery buildings was devoted entirely to an impressive Picasso collection, which we were rather surprised to find here.

After walking around all day, however, our personal highlight of the Open Air Museum was an outdoor hot springs foot bath at a temperature of 41C (106F). You pay 100 yen (about $1) for a towel, and you can soak your aching tootsies for as long as you like. Of course, when it is raining — which it was — then your enthusiasm for doing so is somewhat dampened, literally. However, that was not going to stop Alice:

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Dinner this evening was a another artistically-arranged 10-course traditional Japanese meal. (The courses are quite small, so it is not the feat of gluttony that it sounds like.) And afterwards, we were given a lesson in “gift wrapping cloth) by Mariko. As you may know, the Japanese are big on gifts, and the presentation no less than the gift itself is very much a part of the ethos. If you buy something at a department store, they will wrap it for you in such a transcendentally artistic way that your heart breaks when you are forced to open it later. But for many occasions — visiting friends, for example, or possibly even having your tires rotated — mere paper will not do. No, special cloth is used for this purpose, and Mariko gave us each a couple of brightly colored swaths, each about a meter on a side, then showed us how to wrap a gift in it.

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It looks deceptively easy when she does it, as a few of our travel mates will attest:

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“That folds over…no, wait…bring that corner over to…hold it…my shirt is tangled in that corner…no, fold it… wait, I lost my hand…. aaaarrrghhhhhh”

It wasn’t pretty.

And that pretty much wraps up Hakone. Tomorrow we take the bullet train to Kanezawa, where we will stay for a few nights before heading on to Kyoto.

After all this discussion of artistic stuff, I will close this entry with a nonsequiter about toilets. Well, it’s not altogether a nonsequiter, just mostly. One of the common factors binding all of the aesthetics that we witnessed today was a very high degree of the fastidiousness for which the Japanese are justly known. This mindset makes for delicate art but makes the whole issue of, um, elimination somewhat problematic: there is noting fastidious about what you are doing in the bathroom when, say, suffering a bout of digestive upset. So in order to preserve everyone’s delicate sensibilities, many toilets — on the trains, and in our hotel rooms — are equipped with noise machines. While you are proceeding with your unspeakable excretory business you push a button and the machine emits a continuous loud sound — water running, white noise, or the sound of continuous flushing — that prevents the sounds of your personal biology from impinging upon the attention of whoever is in the next room. I have to say that my reaction to this is, “C’mon, people, grow up!” I mean, really.

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Fujiyama

It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of  Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

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Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.

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Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).

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You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.

 

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Shrine On, Harvest Moon

…But first, the promised pictures from last night’s visit to the Tokyo Tower. The first is of course the tower itself; the others were taken from the top observatory, 800 feet up. (There is also a midpoint observatory at the 500 ft point.)

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The Tower was the tallest structure in Tokyo until July 2008, when the Tokyo Skytree was finished; at 2080 feet it dwarfs the Tower but is far less convenient to our hotel. Plus, I was up in the Tower 20 years ago so there was a certain nostalgia factor as well.

Today was a shrine-filled day as we moved around for the first time with our 15-person group. Also, the weather appears to have improved for the moment, so I suppose one could say it was a sun-shriney day. (Rim shot!)

Our first stop, however, was the Imperial Palace. You can’t actually go inside without special arrangements made long in advance, so your options are basically to either look at the gardens (which in truth are not all that interesting), or circumnavigate the grounds whilst admiring the wals and the moat. We went with the latter, and about all we have to show for it is a nice view of the so-called “double gate”, i.e.:

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Along the way our tour lead Mariko — a knowledge, high-energy 30-ish woman who speaks noticeably accented but generally good English — filled us in on the structure and recent history of the Japanese royal family. It’s less dysfunctional than the English royal family, though not by a whole lot. There was all sorts of angst about royals marrying commoners, that sort of thing. (There was also a case of a commoner joining the royal household and basically lapsing into permanent depression upon losing control of all aspects of her life.)

We moved on to Asakusa shrine, like Meiji one of the larger and better known shrines, although not one that acrries quite as much historical import as Meiji. Asakusa, like Meiji, has a large courtyard but with an added attraction: a large well-shaped incense burner in the middle of the courtyard so that prior to approaching the shrine supplicants can immerse themselves in, well, holy smoke, I guess. You can see the incense burner smoking in the middle of this photo, taken from the steps of the shrine and looking back towards the courtyard.

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And here are some visitors getting smoked:

asakusa-004The woman on the right in the sleeveless top who appears to be complaining about a migraine is in fact wafting the smoke towards her face, the better to be immersed in it. This is not a recommended religious activity for asthmatics.

One of the fun things about Asakusa is that it attracts a lot of people in traditional garb, like this girl.

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Here’s another traditional Japanese activity that you can find in the area:

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But another fun part of Asakusa — the best part, if you don’t actually practice Shinto — is that the road leading up to it is lined with vendor storefronts selling everything from Hello Kitty souvenirs to an enormous variety of interesting edibles.

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As you can see it’s a total madhouse, jam-packed with people to the point that it is occasionally difficult to move. We had lunch at an udon (thick noodle) restaurant on a side street and hit an ice cream stall for dessert on the crowded promenade. This was more interesting than it sounds, because the Japanese — as with so many other things — have a unique approach to ice cream. You know those Keurig coffee machines, where the cofee comes in a little cup-shaped pod that you pop into the machine? That’s how the Japanese do ice cream. The “pods” in this case are about the size of a small cereal bowl and are (obviously) stored at very low temperature. You specify what flavor you want, and they pop the appropriate pod into the machine, which aerates and extrudes the contents into the familiar cone. The wonderful thing about this paradigm is that since the pods can be stored so efficiently in these single-serving pods — you just have to stack the things in the freezer — that it is easy to lay in an inventory with a very large number of flavors, even in a small store. And so it came to pass that I had honeydew ice cream and Alice had — wait for it — sesame ice cream. In case you were wondering, sesame ice cream is gray in color, which is a little odd to behold. But they taste great.

Sated, we moved on to our next shrine, the controversial Yakusuni war memorial. More on that in a moment but first we stopped along the river for a view of Asahi (the beer company) headquarters. Why?  Here’s the building:

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The tall pointy thing second from left is the aforementioned Tokyo Skytree. The Asahi headquarters is the gold building with the funny upper floors. Look carefully now. Could it be that that building is built to resemble….a glass of beer? Yep, complete with foam head. But what’s that giant misshapen rhinoceros horn on the right? It is supposed to represent some kind of divine spirit that motivates the (apparently) blessed beermakers of Asahi. To me it looks less like a divine spirit than some kind of caricatured spermatazoa from a poorly-made junior high school sex-ed film. But that’s just me.

But back to the Yasukuni shrine. It is controversial because it is the memorial to 2.5 million war dead, all of whom are named there. This might not be so terrible except that the names include a number of Japan’s A-list war criminals. Every year there is a huge blow-up as to whether the prime minister should visit the shrine and pay homage; for many years he did not, at the urging of the US, Russia, China, and just about everybody else, the not unreasonable argument being that it kinda sends the wrong message. But the very nationalistic right wing is ascendant in Japan these days, just as in the US and Europe, and so the Prime Minister attended this year and pissed off a number of foreign governments in the process.

The shrine includes a good-size museum about the war, which I can hardly begin to describe because it is frankly such an egregious whitewash. But here’s a corner of the lobby:

yasakuni-001You may have a sense of where this is going. I won’t go into the details — partly because I am still picking my jaw up off the floor and partly because it is late and I need to get to bed — but here’s the big takeaway: World War II was the U.S.’s fault. Wow! I had no idea. I will have to sleep on this, so good night.

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Cats (Not the Broadway Show)

The Meiji Shrine is located in the Harajuku district, about which I wil quote Wikipedia: “Harajuku is known internationally as a center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Shopping and dining options include many small, youth oriented, independent boutiques and cafés…” To put it another way, it’s where you find a whole lot of very oddly dressed young people; indeed the mere act of typing that sentence makes me feel like an old fart. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.

As we exited the park and crossed the large intersection at the front of the railway station, the first thing that caught my eye was a building that said Cat Café. This is more or less what it sounds, unless you think it sounds like a place where cats go to drink coffee – which, now that I think of it, is something crazy enough for Japan to actually have. But no, what it actually is a place where people go to play with cats. It’s a big room with all sorts of comfy cat-friendly furniture and crawling with cats. You pay your entrance fee and for a half hour you get to de-stress by playing with a room full of cats. Or at least, maybe you get to de-stress. I am allergic to them, and no huge fan to begin with. If forced into that setting at gunpoint (which would be required), I would while away a happy half hour sneezing, wiping mucus out of my eyes, and running around screaming “Get it off me! Get it off me!” Many people who know me think that this would be well worth the investment.

But Alice is a cat person and I offered her the opportunity to go in solo, which slightly to my surprise she declined. But let the record show to my extreme cat-loving friends (Angie and Thumper, you know who you are) that I did offer.

The intersection and main thoroughfare heading away from the station were mobbed, and we worked our way slowly down the street in search of both lunch and the famous Cat Street, the latter having nothing to do with cats despite the name but rather the hub of the aforementioned “Japanese youth culture and fashion”. We were temporarily impeded along our route by some kind of religious parade, as yiou can see here.

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As you can see there are three large groups of identically-dressed marchers, each carrying a shrine. They were highly enthusiastic, to say the least, shouting in unison, fist-pumping, and thumping rhythmically on the bamboo shrine supports.

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All very interesting and exciting, to be sure, but no one in the crowd or the nearby shops seemed to know quite what they were doing there. It is likely that it is some kind of equinox celebration (which they are big on here), a couple of days late so that it could take place on the weekend.

We continued down the road to Cat Street, indeed encountering a great number of the promised fashionable youth. Many, especially the young women, were very elegant. Many were rather outré, and many were of the “casual/vaguely hostile” look. Here’s one of the latter.

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But the most unsettling by far are the quasi-Lolitas. Here’s a head shot of one.

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What you cannot see in this picture is the rest of her outfit, which is a frilly white knee-length dress — complete with petticoats — with a big lacy heart on the front, white stockings, and patent leather shoes. Here’s a really lousy shot of one of this species that I sneaked in the Edo Museum the other day.

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(Her boyfriend’s striped pants definitely add to the effect, whatever it is.)

The poor quality of the photo is a direct result of my having taken it on the fly from waist level without any niceties of focusing or composition, my having done so because I simply did not have the temerity to ask permission of someone who so clearly occupies a different universe than I do.

So the Lolita look is a thing; we’ve seen six or eight girls who look like this. So I guess that there is a demographic that considers it fashionable to dress as though you’re on a date with a pedophile. Creepiness factor = maximum. (Humbert Humbert, check your messages.)

So that is Cat Street and environs. In addition to the high end boutiques, it includes a lot of cool little shops like this one where they make candy by hand.

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…as well as some appealingly normal people like this mom carrying her daughter.

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We ended the day with a trip to the Tokyo Tower, the city’s second-highest structure. From 800 feet up, we got a spectacular 360-degree nighttime view of the city. I will post photos tomorrow after I have a chance to edit them.

Now we’re off to meet up with our tour group. We’ve been on our own for the past week, but today is our last day in Tokyo and starting tomorrow we head south with a group of 14 other people to Mt Fuji en route to Kyoto.

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Meiji, Meiji Not

Remember when Commodore Perry muscled his way into Tokyo in 1853? Of course you do: we told you about it a couple of days ago when we visited the Edo-Tokyo Museum, although in fairness we did not warn you that there would be a quiz. Anyway, that more or less marked the beginning of the end of Japan’s Edo period, when the shoguns ruled the roost. They continued to lose ground after that, until finally in 1867 the biggest, baddest shogun of them all, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, ceded power to the emperor Meiji and thus ushered in the eponymous Meiji Period, also called the Meiji Restoration.

Meiji moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo, opened Japan up to international trade and diplomacy, and generally built the country up into a world power. When he died in 1912 it was  literally the end of an era. His son Yoshihito ascended the throne and with the assent of parliament built a large elaborate shrine in his honor; its grounds cover 174 acres and include a lake and gardens. Here is the entrance gate to the grounds.

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It is a much-visited and much honored place, which is one of the reasons that the Allies firebombed it to ashes during World War II. It was rebuilt in the 1950’s. The shrine itself faces a large courtyard where amulet and votive vendors ply their trade, as they do at all large Shinto shrines. Just as in Kamakura, you can buy oddly specific good luck charms, e.g., for passing an exam, or finding a job, or improving your health, or (my personal favorite) “traffic safety”.

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We were milling around the courtyard when to our delight a Shinto wedding procession exited the shrine, crossed the courtyard, and disappeared through the gate.

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“I can really feel that you’ve been working out.”

This was very exciting: our first Shinto wedding, and at a big-name shrine at that! How often does that happen?

The answer, as it turns out, is “about every ten minutes”. Because it was only a few minutes later that a wedding procession came back in through the gate, across the courtyard, and into the temple. Our first thought was, “Hey, why did they come back?” But no:

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Different couple! It appears that the Meiji Shrine is the Las Vegas wedding chapel of Shinto nuptials. So, mazel tov to these happy couples, and any others that happened to go through the mill today.

Despite my personal flippancy, many Japanese take this place very seriously; Meiji transformed Japan and is still venerated. We saw a number of visitors — including young people — come to a stop as they were exiting the gate, turn 180 degrees, and bow repeatedly to the shrine before leaving. We obviously did not, but we did linger long enough to stroll around the grounds and lake.

Cutting this of early today as we are off to get a panoramic nighttime view of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Tower, at 800 feet.

Next time: the curse of the cat people.

 

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Tokyo National Museum & Friends

The Tokyo National Museum (“TNM” in the local signage) is one of the major destinations in the city, and an impressive institution it is. A complex of multiple buildings whose main entrance resembles a gigantic temple, it is the repository of many of Japan’s treasure: sculptures, swords, scrolls and other artifacts that in some cases date back some 1500 years. Unsurprisingly you are not allowed to take photos in much of it, but there are some exceptions so here are a couple of shots of the kind that you (unsurprisingly) find there:

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Do not be on the wrong end of this object

tnm-001  I was going to title this post “Samuraiiiii…. Museum!” à la the late great John Belushi, but there is in fact a separate Samurai Museum which we will probably not have time to see.

The TNM is located at the edge of Ueno Park, which is sort of Tokyo’s Central Park, though not nearly as big. (When I was here 20 years it also shared Central Park’s reputation of not being a place that you wanted to be at night. I don’t know if that is still the case.) It has a zoo, and fountains, and all that other park stuff, and like parks everywhere is a good place for people-watching, such as this contemplative young woman.

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At the metro station just outside the park are also the dreaded Chia Pandas. (They don’t call them that, but they should.) That is to say, there are two of these:

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Also near Ueno is one of Tokyo’s premier souvenir shopping districts, the Ameyoko promenade. This is a huge area literally under the railroad tracks, yeasty with bargain hunters and noisy as hell from the trains, where you can buy, well, pretty much anything: clothing; jewelry (with a particular emphasis on American Indian jewelry, for some incomprehensible reason); leather goods; fresh fish, fruit and vegetables; cosmetics; food stalls; etc., etc. As with every other market place anywhere, it is mostly narrow passageways thronged with people, including the hawkers themselves, shouting at the top of their lungs,like this guy:

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Here are some local shoppers trying on hair bands, or cosmetics, or something. Whatever it was they were doing, it was a group effort and they were really into it.

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You notice the face masks, of course. The Japanese are very fond of them, ostensibly for hygienic purposes, though it’s hard to say whether they actually do any good in that regard.  Out on the streets maybe one in 20 people wear them, though on the trains and subways the fraction is noticeably higher.

I am happy to report that it is not raining today. his gives us the opportunity to see an outdoor sight, probably one of the major shrines. Tomorrow we meet up with our travel group for our last day in Tokyo, then head south to Hakone and Mt. Fuji.

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Maximum Fish, and a Mad Scramble

A lot of images spring to mind when you hear the word “Japan”, and for Alice and me one of those words is “sushi.” And like the old saying goes, “Teach a man to fish, and he will eat a lot of sushi.” Something like that. But anyway, as you doubtless know fish is a very big deal in Japan, and consequently one of the major go-to sites in Tokyo is the Tsukiji Fish Market. This is where it all happens: the tuna and other catch brought in during the predawn hours of every morning and auctioned off to the wholesalers. It is possible to see the tuna auction itself — that’s the biggie, with the biggest fish going for hundreds of thousands of dollars (and that is not a typo) — but it isn’t easy. They only allow 120 spectators in, and demand for a seat is high. The auction starts at 5 AM every day and it is recommended that you show up two hours before that if you want to have a decent shot at getting a seat in the gallery.  So naturally Alice and I, intrepid travelers that we are, looked at each other and said…. “Uh uh.”

If like us you are sane enough not to go to the auction, your next best course of action is to show up at  the much more congenial hour of 10 AM, at which time the wholesale floor opens to the public. The wholesale area is a huge warehouse, a good one or two city blocks in size, shaped like a giant Quonset hut with endless banks of incandescent lights receding into the gloom above you. As you enter — being careful not to break your neck on the perpetually slippery floor as it is constantly hosed down — you pass through the loading area, dodging the little electric loading trucks as they barrel heedlessly past you.

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“Hey, does this place smell fishy to you?”

Once past the loading area, you find yourself in a maze of stalls, navigating past the vendors on narrow passageways which, somehow, the delivery flatbeds still manage to squeeze though without killing anybody. No matter which passageway you turn down or which direction you look, you are likely to see scenes and characters like this:

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They sell every fish you have ever heard of, and a fair number you have not. There were more than a few specifies that neither of us could identify, but there were plenty that we could: tuna, eel, gar, snapper, clams, scallops, mussels, octopus, whelks, crabs, shrimp, and on and on. It was pretty impressive, and a lot of fun to behold. Some of the vendors have all their wares on ice; others have them displayed live in tanks. There are hoses and Styrofoam bins of crushed ice absolutely everywhere — and a few stations manned by guys whose sole job was to continuously wrangle suitcase-sized blocks of ice into giant ice crushers.

The complex is ringed by countless tiny seafood restaurants — some seating ten people or less — and street vendors, all offering fresh-as-fresh-can-be seafood in its many forms, prepared in as many ways. Radiating out from the ring of restaurants is a network of crowded market alleyways, also thronged with people, seafood restaurants, and sushi vendors. So here is our lunch being prepared:

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That’s about eight different kinds of fresh seafood — at least one of which we couldn’t even identify — steamed and then braised with a blowtorch over the grill, and served on a big scallop shell with a pair of chopsticks. Seriously good.

That evening, we did the Shibuya Scramble.

The what?

The Shibuya Scramble is not a dance, though it sort of sounds like one. Although come to think of it, it actually is a sort of dance, as you will see in a moment. More narrowly, it is a place, officially known as Shibuya Crossing, an enormous intersection in front of the Sibuya train station in central Tokyo. Five streets come together in a very broad intersection ringed by over-illuminated multistory department stores, pachinko parlors, restaurants, and everything else, all with animated light displays. It looks like this:

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Even the side streets get into the act:

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So the name of the game, as elsewhere in Tokyo, is “sensory overload”. But what makes Shibuya Crossing special — and it shows up in most “Top Ten” lists of things to see in Tokyo — is the traffic flow, which would probably not have been your first guess. The thing is, that because of the stores and the train station, an exceptionally large number of pedestrians flow through this huge multi-lane intersection at any given moment, and the traffic lights are timed such that everybody crosses in every direction at the same time. The lights turn green and the scene suddenly looks like an explosion in an anthill:

shibuya-005 Hence the name “Shibuya Scramble.” At ground level, in the middle of the crowd, here is what you see as you cross:

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If you want to see this in action, check out this YouTube video. And if you want to watch it as it happens, there is even this live feed webcam. There is a weird anticipatory pleasure as you watch the ebb and flow of people, watching the car traffic pass through the intersection as you wait for the magic moment when the light turns and those hundreds of people all surge forward at once. It’s sort of like watching the waves at the ocean.

In short, the Shibuya Scramble is utterly lunatic and it is enormous, incomprehensible fun to be a part of… I’m not altogether sure why. It is, in its way, quintessentially Japanese: a detailed, choreographed aesthetic overlaid with a veneer of batshit craziness. Or maybe the other way around. It’s Blade Runner meets the Bolshoi. We’re really glad we went.

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Oh, the Humidity!

September is typhoon season in Japan — it averages over 9 inches of rain — which raises the obvious question of why anyone (and by anyone I mean “we”) would plan a vacation here in that particular month. The answer in our case is work-related: I have a consulting gig supporting my former employer in winning a major NASA bid, whose timing would collide with an October or November trip. So I hope that my former coworkers all appreciate that I am taking a bullet for the team here. Or at least a large number of raindrops.

In truth, though, it doesn’t really slow us down. We’ve only had one “Why the hell are we here?” downpour, at the Giant Buddha in Kamakura two days ago; most of the time it’s no worse than a light drizzle, and we’ve gone for up to six hours at a time with no rain at all. When this happens, we get very excited: we look outside our hotel room in the morning and exclaim, “Look! It’s only gloomy today!”

It is, however, humid. Really, really humid: the needle is pretty much pinned at 100%, and every article of clothing and object on our person that is not made of metal is at least slightly damp. There is no point in eating potato chips: they go stale before you can get them to your mouth.

I mention all this because the weather was a direct contributor to one of yesterday’s interesting and non-touristy experiences, which was a short journey through the Japanese health care system.

I am very mildly asthmatic, and it normally impinges upon my life almost not at all. I do not experience any shortness of breath but rather on occasion am afflicted with a mild but irritating cough. It’s not much of a problem; I have one of those little puff-spray inhalers that cause undersized nerds to get beat up in high school movies, and I just take a hit or two off it if I start to cough. Even that doesn’t happen very often. But since arriving in Japan I have been coughing much more frequently, the result being that I have been hitting the inhaler much more often than I anticipated and it is thus running low. Alice speculated — correctly, as it turned out — that this was because of the relentless humidity. Again, not a huge problem, but I didn’t want to spend the last week or two of the trip with an annoying cough, and so decided to seek out a doctor and try to get a refill. (My family doctor is 6700 miles from here and no Japanese pharmacy is going to honor an American prescription anyway.)

And so we came to St. Luke’s International Hospital, one Metro stop from our hotel. It is a large university hospital, and — being Japanese – extremely modern and well-organized. Everything is white, except for the people. By which I mean that Japan’s ethnic homogeneity is somewhat jarring to a foreigner; I saw but a single Caucasian person (a blonde woman) among all the hospital staff. The administrative staff’s English skills were rocky but serviceable, and it wasn’t a problem in any case because, in billing itself as an “international hospital”, St. Luke’s has a number of interpreters on staff. When someone wanted to explain something to me in detail — like the fact that I needed a Japanese national medical insurance card to do anything (“Single payer” system! Take that, critics of Obamacare!) — she would dial an in-house number and hand me the phone, and I would find myself talking to a very friendly person whose English was absolutely perfect. Admin girl and I would pass the phone back and forth, communicating through the interpreter. This worked surprisingly well, and I now have a unique souvenir: a Japanese national medical insurance card.

My doctor was a delightful young woman whose English was a little rough but adequate for the purpose: no phone calls to the interpreter needed. She very clearly knew what she was doing — trust me on this assessment, as I have way too much experience with doctors — and confirmed the asthma diagnosis, writing me the needed prescription. She also established Alice’s medical credentials, remarking that typhoon season brings her an enormous number of asthma cases.

I could fill the prescription right there in the hospital, and did so, and we were on our way. Total elapsed time since we walked in: 1 hour 35 minutes. Total cost (since despite now being registered in the system I obviously do not have Japanese medical insurance): $500, all major credit cards accepted. So now when we get home I will experience the joy of submitting a claim to my own actual health insurance company. I’m sure they won’t be fazed in the least by the fact that my receipt and every piece of accompanying documentation is in Japanese.

After leaving the hospital we went and did some actual fun stuff, which I will leave for the next post.

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