January-February 2004

After traveling for months in Asia, we knew we were in for some big changes when we got to Japan. My first surprise was that the ATMs actually let you withdraw the equivalent of US$5000 at one time. My second surprise was that the bus into town costs US$30. That sort of explained the first surprise though. Our very first stop after getting off the airport bus was at the home of Angela's cousin, Damian. He helped us get oriented in Tokyo and even let us stay with him for a while. The other big change was that for once it wasn't just the two of us. We met up with a friend from Paris, Ian, for our three weeks of Japanese site seeing.

We sampled all sorts of good Japanese food in Tokyo. We tried the first of many noodle shops; we tried the first of a huge supply of vending machines; we had conveyor belt sushi; Damian introduced us to izagaya--sort of a Japanese style tapas; we even tried bento boxes at a place frequented by the sumo wrestlers.

We got to do a little shopping in Shinjuku and check out the arcades and electronics stores in Akihabara. Of course high tech in Japan means new Play Stations, cameras, and toilets. On our last day in Tokyo, we went to a sumo match. We had a great time watching the fat guys in diapers smash into each other. Though we skipped the opening ceremonies and some of the preliminary bouts with the juniors and middle weights, we still managed to see four hours of fights with the super pros.

Izekaya dinner with Damian--our host, guide, and Angela's cousin Our very first vending machine beverage was at Yoyogi Park in Shibuya The nightlights of Shinjuku Shopping for high-tech gizmos--toilet seats--in Akihabara Hōzō-mon main gate at Sensō-ji Ian getting in the spirit of Tokyo commuting Meeting the local celebrities before the big matches Opening ceremony with all the super-sumo heros Sumo warmups Fat guys clapping to get ready Ready... set... A quick side step and it's over almost before it started.

From there we took an overnight bus to Kyōto. After dropping off our bags at a ryokan hotel (check in time isn't until 4:00 pm in Japan) we went out to explore the temples and castles. Kyōto is completely full of temples, and we saw a pile of them. We walked along the Philosopher's Path (guidebooks assured us that it's beautiful in spring rather than just bitter cold like winter) and saw temples grounds filled with great mosses. The grounds are kept so clean that they prune every single cluster of pine needles on the trees and even sweep the moss to keep it clear of twigs and leaves. Their outdoors is cleaner than my indoors usually is.

Among the many temples and shrines, we also found time to see a castle and a palace. The palace in Kyoto is where the emperor used to live, and the castle (Nijo-jo) is where the shogun wielded the real power. Also in Kyoto we were introduced to the Japanese Kaiseki food experience. It's an elaborate meal with lots of neatly-arranged little courses including, but not limited to, sea urchin, raw fish, soup cooked right in front of you, and fish eyeballs.

Konchi-in Crane rock in the rock garden at Konchi-in Konchi-in garden Ginkaku-ji Ginkaku-ji Important moss display at Gingkaku-ji Buying socks at Tō-ji temple market Checking out the yukatas at Tō-ji temple market Japan's tallest five story pagoda outside Tō-ji Old artisan making custom chopsticks The Shogun's castle, Nijō-jō Emperor's Imperial Palace Garden at Imperial Palace Garden at Imperial Palace Kinkaku-ji (Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

After a few more temples on our last day in Kyoto, we took the train to Ōsaka. Here we visited the great aquarium and tried the public bath at the hotel. The baths are a great tradition in Japan, but they aren't used to get clean. First you have to shower and scrub to get clean. Only after that can you enter the hot bath to soak. Then afterwards, you shower again. While soaking, I even got to meet an old ex-Yakuza guy (that's the Japanese mafia). Well, "meet" probably isn't the right word when neither of us spoke the other's language, but at least we said hello. (He was identifiable as Yakuza based on his big tatoo.) In the evening we tried out Okonomiyaki. It's a local specialty made of lots of seafood and cabbage cooked up in a round patty--sometimes referred to as Japanese pizza.

But the unusual highlight of the days in Osaka was the abacus lessons. It took a fair bit of convincing to get Angela and Ian to come along, but in the end they enjoyed it too. It's run by a bunch of abacus enthusiasts--our volunteer instructor is also a professional instructor--mainly for residents. But they were happy to have us for just one lesson and were very accomodating. We even got to keep the abacuses that they provided for us to use. If you find yourself in Osaka, I highly recommend looking these guys up.

Celebrating after a successful abacus lesson Angela checking out the super colossal gigantic enormous crabs Jellyfish were the brightest thing at the aquarium Watching the penguin parade A little diner -- Japanese style Okonomiyaki being prepared

Next we went to Himeji on our way to Hiroshima. Himeji Castle (Himeji-jō or Shirasagi-jō) is home to one of the best preserved castles in Japan. But all old Japanese building are a bit more modern than the original founding date would imply. This is because they all seem to burn down regularly but then get rebuilt in exactly the same style. It was an impressive castle though--with a great view over the surrounding countryside.

Himeji Castle

With our first full day in Hiroshima we went to the Peace Memorial Park and Museum. Although everyone knows the story of Hiroshima and the first atomic bomb, there are still lots of sobering details to be learned at the museum. The little girl who was among the first lukemia victims who endlessly folded paper cranes, the speed with which the city rebuilt, the secrecy the US clamped down on the city afterwards, etc.

From Hiroshima we took a ferry out to Miyajima Island. Of course we couldn't miss the island's most famous attraction: the bright orange floating shrine. It's a Shinto shrine that's built right out on the edge of the shore so that it's actually surrounded by water at high tide. We also hiked up the small mountain in the middle and said hello to all of the tame little deer that wander around the island.

After all the walking, we were pretty tired so we tried out the public baths. We had decided that this was the best place to splash out and get a nice hotel, so the baths here were excellent--lots of funny smelling soaps and lotions, free razors and hair tonic, nice yukatas (Japanese bathrobes), the works. Soon after we were all cleaned up it was time for dinner. It was included in the price of the hotel--and it's served in the room--and we were hoping for something nice, but we didn't know exactly what to expect. The dinner exceeded all possible expectations we had. There were oysters, sashimi, soup, another soup, rice with mussels, fried tempura, sweet wine, and a half dozen other things that I couldn't really identify (though I dutifully ate them all).

Peace Memorial Park Famous tori at Itsukushima-jinja on Miya-Jima Island Ceiling lanterns at Daisho-in Little Buddhas Amazing dinner at Kinsuikan Angela, yukata, tatamis, and the big dinner

Our next stop was the city of Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. Ian had family there (sort of anyway, the brother of a sister in law) so we imposed ourselves and took advantage of their hospitality. And quite hospitable hosts they were. They showed us all around town including the big castle, the crazy temple Ishite-ji, the oldest hot spring bath in the world, and the tourist office where we could borrow bikes for free. We even had the good luck of arriving at a festival time. It was the annual "Winter isn't quite over yet--but it will be soon--so spring must be just around the corner" festival at Tsubaki Shrine. We tried Kobe beef, Tokyo cakes, and rang the bell for luck.

Ishite-ji Ishite-ji

Leaving Matsuyama, we took a big ferry to Osaka and then a train up to Koya-san. It's a sacred mountain with lots of monastaries, temples, and a big cemetery. You're able to stay overnight at the monasteries. But they turned out to be pretty expensive places to stay, so we just made a day trip out of it. We walked through the cemetery and saw statues, rock gardens, temples, and paintings. And at the end of the day we continued on to Nara.

Okunoin cemetery Kongōbu-ji

Nara is a great little city. It's one of the former capitals of Japan, so it's filled with shrines and temples (then again, what Japanese city isn't?). We saw some of the more important cultural items including the big bronze Buddha, the old town district, and the drum machine video games. What a great video game! I'll be looking for it in arcades around the world now.

But the main reason we chose to come to Nara when we did was to see the lantern festival. Long ago they used to light the laterns at the shrine every night, but now they're only lit three nights per year. As part of the daytime festivities we visited the temple Ganjo-ji where we were treated to displays of fire walking, free sake, and little bags of dried beans. The beans have some sort of historic significance that we didn't entirely understand, but now they're tossed out with little prizes inside. When evening came around we visited Kasuga Taisha (Nara's holiest shrine) and saw all the stone and bronze lanterns. It was an impressive sight.

Tōdai-ji Tōdai-ji Stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine) Stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Drumming video game Enjoying the free sake Gango-ji Fire walking at Gango-ji Modern "lanterns" lighting the way to Kasuga Taisha Stone lanterns at Kasuga Taisha Bronze lanterns at Kasuga Taisha

After that our time in Japan was winding down. We made our way back toward Tokyo via Arashiyama. The bamboo forest there was great, and the temples--including the home of Ikebana (flower arranging)--were impressive.

Bamboo forest Purification well at Tenryū-ji Another scene at Tenryū-ji

Our final stop was in Nikkō for some more gigantic, famous, and intricate temples. Although the weather was cold, we also went out for some walking along Lake Chuzenji. It's got huge waterfalls leading both into and out of it, and it's a beautiful mountain-encircled lake. We nearly finished off our time there with a bit of ice skating, but the US$25 per person price tag put us off.

Rinnō-ji Five Story Pagoda outside Tōshō-gū Close up at Taiyuin-byo, containing the mausoleum of the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu Kegon Falls From Ryuzu Falls looking over Chūzenji-ko

Last modified: 20 February 2004