Konnichiwa! I have wanted to visit Japan for many years so this was a wonderful way to end our 9 week around the world journey. Thanks to the Tonegawa family, Thomas and Yuko Taylor, Aaron Goldberg and Rene Huemer, photographer, for their help with travel ideas for Japan. We flew from Beijing to Osaka with a change of planes in Seoul. When we arrived in Osaka there were very long lines checking for people who might be ill. When we finally cleared customs and immigration it was fairly late at night and my ATM card was not able to access the cash we needed. I had some Chinese currency I exchanged, but this was not a lot of money. Through use of a credit card, I did splurge for first class rail passes. We had heard wonderful things about Japan’s rail system and decided that we should fully enjoy its benefits. We took a train from Osaka to Kyoto and when we arrived were overwhelmed by the size and extent of the Kyoto train station. It dwarfed other train stations I had seen. We meandered to our hotel, which was located in the train station and with a little bit of difficulty finally found our way there.
Communicating in Japan was more difficult than we had anticipated, even with the hotel staff. English was not widely spoken in the country, even at our hotel reception. Given the closeness of Japan and the US, we just were not prepared for a language challenge. Once we made our way up to our hotel room, we were once again surprised that it was very small with barely enough room to place our suitcases. But once again, the toilet was impressive—bidet style toilet with a heated seat—complete with control panel. It was very luxurious.
On Sunday our first full day in Japan, we booked seats to visit Hiroshima. We continued to have a challenge getting yen, since my ATM card was not functioning. I had US dollars that I could exchange, but none of the exchange outlets opened on Sunday until after our train departed. We were very lucky to find a nearby hotel that had a vending machine that took dollars and converted to them to yen. Whew – it would have been challenging to get on the train with no Japanese yen.
The train to Hiroshima was standing room only and not a part of system of trains covered by our rail pass but it was the only way to go. My former student and good friend Aaron Goldberg had spent a week in Japan before we connected in Singapore and he suggested many places to visit. The first place on his list Miyajima (Deer Island), is a beautiful island and only 1 hour away from Hiroshima, which was also on his list. As we approached the last train stop to get near Miyajima, we realized we did not have specific directions how to take the local train and find a boat to take us to the island. I noticed a school group from Australia on the train and was guessing they were going to Miyajima. As we were leaving the train, I saw a Japanese man wearing a Boston Red Sox cap. I asked him if he was from Boston and he told me he had been a curator at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, had married a woman from Boston, and now had returned to his birthplace in Japan. Coincidentally, he was the guide for the Australian school group I had noticed. I asked him where they were going and most fortunately he said they were going to Miyajima and Hiroshima. I asked him if we could follow the group and they invited us to join them for the entire day. We felt so very fortunate to have made this connection. In speaking with him further, he said he continues to listen to Boston based Eric Jackson’s WGBH jazz radio show online. Eric is a longtime friend and this was more evidence of how small the world can be.
After the local train, we walked with our new friends a few blocks to take a ferry boat to the island. Upon arrival we could see why Aaron was enthusiastic about visiting the island. Miyajima is believed to be the island where God dwells. It was enchantingly beautiful with splendid temples, gates, a forested mountain with many trails, and sacred deer roaming freely around the island. Miyajima is truly a treasure. When it was time to break for lunch, the Australian school group leaders suggested that we try a unique Japanese dish called Okonomiyaki. We found a restaurant close by featuring it and it was so much fun to watch the chefs’ enthusiasm when preparing this entrée on the grill right in front of us. This dish has different ingredients depending on what part of Japan you’re in. Bottom line was we both loved it.
After lunch, the students regrouped and took the return ferry and another local train to Hiroshima. Our aim was to travel to Hiroshima’s Peace Park, the site of the first atomic bomb. We took cabs from the train station to the location where the bomb exploded. It turns out the bomb detonated in the air before it landed. As a result, it obliterated almost everything within a 2 kilometer radius. Surprisingly the building directly below where the bomb detonated was left mostly intact and remains so to this day. The students rang the bell and continued a long standing tradition by bringing dozens of paper cranes that they left at the Childrens’ Peace Memorial. We finished our visit with a stop at the Peace Memorial Museum that had an excellent but chilling presentation of the events of August 6, 1945. Through photos, video-taped interviews with survivors, and a powerful reenactment display, one could get some sense of the devastation and tragedy of that day. I had forgotten until I visited the site that one of my former students was the grandson of Harry Truman, the US President who authorized the dropping of the bomb. Another example of the connections and coincidences that take place.
We took cabs back to the main train station. Much to our surprise, the taxi cab driver was wearing white gloves and the front and back seats were covered with white lace seat protectors. In Japan, being a taxi driver is not a job for immigrants. It falls under the category of service profession and is taken very seriously. Taxi drivers wear white gloves to demonstrate the formality of their occupation and function. After our short ride we had a nice meal with the adult leaders of the student group before returning to Kyoto via train.
Especially after our recent Vietnam experience, this day was an additional reminder of the insanity of war and how humans can treat each other. It gave us incentive to strive for peace and understanding in the world.
On Monday, we got a late start after our jam packed journey on Sunday. We set off for Nara, but the train we were on stopped after a few minutes due to construction on the line. We could not reach our destination that day. We decided instead to visit the nearby and very important Fushimi-Inari Taisha Shrine. The temples are beautiful and we were able to witness some ceremonies. This site is best know, however, for the thousands of arches that lead up a mountain. It was very impressive indeed.
That evening, we went walked several blocks to a recommended restaurant and found the Kyoto version of okonomiyaki. There was a big office party going on in the small restaurant and it was interesting to see how much fun they were having and how the wait staff joined in. As in the Miyajima restaurant, we sat next to the grill and could watch the cooks prepare our special order. Our table also had a grill directly in front of us that served as a hot-plate to keep our meal warm while we were eating. Once again it was delicious and we ended up going back there again on Thursday, which was our final night in Kyoto. Check out the photos of Kyochabana Minami-Shinmachi.
Tuesday had us booking a bus tour to visit several different temples and other attractions. Being on a tour can has its pro and cons but we found in a few instances during our journey that it can be an efficient way to experience many places that are not easy to reach on public transportation or where language is a barrier.
Our first stop was Tenryu-ji Zen Temple. We found the structures, gardens and walkways serene and beautiful. I felt at peace strolling through the compound. I was very impressed with the planning and care quite evidenced in the grounds. Adjacent to the Temple Grounds is the Sagano Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama. Wow, this was unique. It was magically eerie to walk through the forest swathed in bamboo trees. What a delightful experience.
On our walk back to the tour bus was a haunting cemetery with some intriguing tombstones. We also had some time to browse the village of Arashiyama and sample some of the food offerings. I enjoyed the Matcha – Green Tea Ice Cream that is quite popular in Japan – it was delicious.
As I mentioned the last tour stop was Fushimi-Inari Taishi Shrine where we had already visited on our own. Before we departed the tour, we replicated a ceremony for misgogi – the cleansing of hands and mouth and also for ringing of bells. These are a few examples of etiquette to visit Japanese temples and shrines.
In the late afternoon, we visited Nishiki Market a five block area of hundreds of shops and restaurants. It has been described as Kyoto’s Kitchen and we truly enjoyed sampling a wide variety of food from several different stalls. It was a treat to experience this lively market area that was abuzz with activity.
Wednesday found us taking a train to Nara. This was an anticipated visit to a wealth of interesting attractions. Perhaps the best know is Nara-koen Park where sacred deer freely roam and intermingle with tourists. This is very different than seeing animals in a zoo. The animals are used to being fed and sometimes petted. Close by to the park is the Todaiji Temple with its huge Buddha statues. Of course magnificent gardens abound. We were a little late in season to enjoy the fullness of Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. Nonetheless we could enjoy many of them that were still in bloom and could imagine how spectacular they had been at the height of the season. We next took a local train and then a bus to Asukadera Temple. This had been recommended and was a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the larger cities. The temple was located in a very rural area with few houses and even fewer shops. This temple was smaller in so many ways but we felt it to be a more intimate experience as we knelt in front of the Buddha statue and toured the simple but peaceful gardens. We then waited for a local bus to take us to Ishibutai Tumulus a very interesting collection of giant stones arranged in interesting manners. Their origin and purpose are not certain, but it was clear that they are hundreds of years old. There were very few other visitors and it was nice to be able to enjoy our visit in a more quiet manner.
We took the last bus back to the train station that took us to Nara and then a faster train back to Kyoto after a pleasant day.
Our last day in Kyoto had us taking a bus to Konkaikomyo-Ji – a beautiful temple. We got off at the stop that we read was near the temple but were having trouble finding the site—but did have an adventure looking for it. Again, not speaking Japanese was a challenge. We finally stumbled on the road that led us to many steps that ascended to the temple. We were happy to finally arrive at yet another splendid Buddha. We spent some quiet time inside and then explored the historically important cemetery on the premises. This was another amazing opportunity for Frances to explore the ancient tombstones with her camera. On our way back to the temple, dozens of young school children arrived for temple. They were very cute and as we departed the temple it brought a smile to our faces. We hurried to take a cab back to the hotel to finish packing, check out, and take the bullet train to Tokyo. We thoroughly enjoyed the wonderful experiences we had in and near Kyoto. Onward to our final destination.
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On my VERY long Bucket List would be a guided tour throughout Japan by train. I’ve watched so many YouTube videos about Japanese trains, but, as you point out, the language barrier can be an issue. But, oh, to ride Bullet Trains, slow local country trains, everything from soup-to-nuts train-wise. I even have guidebooks which specifically focus on the Japanese rail system, but I don’t have the confidence in my navigational skills that I once did. Switzerland? No problem! Japan? Oh, baby; I don’t think I’m up to it. I love the instances of tableside cooking (I figure this isn’t exactly like going to a Benihana!).