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Dining Alone – Day 3

Dining Alone – Day 3

So I vowed to be frank and honest about what I was finding on my tour to Japan and this report is a little more difficult to write than others.   The most distressing part about this trip has been the noticeable lack of tourists everywhere we go.   In Tokyo we noticed it in the train station, when we only saw one other couple that appeared to be foreigners. Actually, they looked Japanese, but were clearly of Japanese descent – the shorts, crocs and the fact that the man was videoing the Shinkansen pulling out gave them away as not native Japanese! On the train to Takayama I didn’t really expect to see any western faces – we were traveling mid-week on a mid-day train to a place that is not on the daily path.  However, it was on arrival in Takayama that we first started realizing how unusual was our journey.   There were no foreigners at our hotel – but lots of men in suits at breakfast this morning.   Last night we had a wonderful dinner at a restaurant, Suzuya, that serves the fabulous local Hida beef (a favorite from our trip a few years ago).    While there, one of the restaurant workers (just realized I’m not sure if he was the owner, the owners son or an employee) had plenty of time to chat with us, take our picture, look up our blog, post pictures on his page,  bring his computer over to our table so we could show him Esprit’s Youtube channel… you get the picture.   We were the only ones in there at the time.    Later  a lone Canadian came in and then, just before we left, a group of Australians materialized and livened up the place.   But the decided lack of tourists in the center of the tourist district was pretty compelling. Up until today, though, it was all just personal observations and speculation that tourists weren’t around, since I had not been to this area of the country during this time of year and perhaps this is a normal lull after their April festival season.   Then we went to Furakawa and Shirakawa-go with a driver and the owner of the taxi company we use for our clients.  She took us to the overlook for Shirakawa-go.   When we were done she asked if I wanted to go to the loo, suggesting that the one here was preferable to some of the later alternatives.  We walked into the restaurant there and she stopped dead, looked back and me and said she’d never seen it empty.  It was 12:20pm.   I could tell by the tone of her voice and her demeanor that this verification of what she’d probably already seen with their business came as a shock.   I was just supposing that things were not as usual – her reaction said it all. The town of Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage site with its gassho, thatched-roof huts was certainly photogenic.  And it was easy to get some good pictures without a lot of tourists crowding into shots.  And it certainly was delightful to not have to fight crowds.   So there are blessings in all situations.  My last few trips have been during the high season in the fall and spring.   If you prefer to travel to destinations on the off season, or when there are NOT as many tourists around, then now is certainly the time to come to Japan.    However, remember that for a little...
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Falling Backwards into Love – Day 2

Falling Backwards into Love – Day 2...

I fell back in love with Japan yesterday – on the 20 minute ride from Nagoya to Gifu, sitting backwards… Perhaps it’s the same way that you fall in love again with a spouse or a child when you almost lose them or they are going through great challenges.  Their vulnerabilities seem more tender—their idiosyncrasies seem more dear. On my last couple of trips to Japan I’d been feeling a little bit of the “I’ve seen this before” or “ok, it’s another temple”.   The delightful tile roof houses and the ubiquitous rice fields had lost their charm.  What was quintessentially Japanese was seeming less special now.   My love for the people and the arts remained strong, but the country itself has begun to seem mundane or unremarkable. Then, this morning, en route to Takayama, I stopped typing up the “Day 1” blog (see above) and looked out the window…  and I fell in love with Japan again.  In the way that touches deep into the heard and reminds you that the outward symbols are really a reflection of the inner spirit. As we pulled out of the city, each place I saw reflected an element of the inner spirit of Japan: The carefully pruned trees (topiary, actually) around the manufacturing plant, adding a touch of beauty to the mundane in a way that the Japanese do.  There is no apology for the fact that it’s a large brewery with truck bays and loading docks.  Just a simple statement that “we’d like to make our environment as beautiful as possible because of who we are, as a people”. The miniscule “farms” that abut so many of the homes – each patch with early spring shoots that make me wonder if it is only for the family, or do they sell the crop or is it partly to keep in touch with their farming roots, even in the developed areas around the city.   And the farming is so deeply rooted that the devastation to the north, in a farming area, cuts more deeply to each individual and into the soul of the country. The beautiful blue tiled roofs – which I STILL have never found out if there is something special about the “meaning” of the blue tile or if it may be the owners just love the color blue that is so prevalent in the indigo of Japan.  They seemed so cheerful now, and so comforting in their ordinariness. The train changing yard we pass through reminds me of the wonderfully efficient Japanese train system that is just a joy to ride and so relaxing for a visitor but which forms the arteries and lifeblood of the country through its connectedness. I see a scaffolded building and reflect on how they TOTALLY cover the building under some sort of fabric, sometimes even decorated (here is a picture of the current scaffolding over Himeji Castle), like a great screen.  This gives me the impression of preparing for a celebration – that when the building is done there will be a great reveal – to see the finished product of grace and beauty, rather than watching it being constructed.   And how like the geisha – who, behind the screens create a thing of beauty before going out into the night – complete. Riding backwards on the train gave me a chance to reflect on what I saw rather than what I was about to see.  It gave me a chance to touch...
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Return to Japan – Day 1

Return to Japan – Day 1

Note to self:  Do NOT plan to do 30 things upon arrival into Tokyo when you are leaving early the next morning… sometimes there are air delays.   After sitting in LAX for an unexpected 3 hours (making the 11 hr flight into a 14 hr sit in the seat flight…), we arrived into Tokyo Narita a little after 6P.   Customs was extraordinarily quick – probably because there were so few “other passports” deplaning – only about 15% of the 2/3 full flight were actually going to Japan – the rest were transiting to other parts of Asia.  For this time of year, that’s a little unusual and shows the clear drop in tourists from the US. Alas, the luggage wait was longer than usual; most likely because they were desperately trying to get the connecting luggage to the right flights and figured the folks that were just picking up theirs could wait a little. This trip we were using a JR Pass so that I could see how easy that is to navigate starting at Narita.  We raced downstairs to the station and got our passes validated and reservations made for the next Narita Express to Tokyo Station (they leave about every ½ hour).   I had time to make two other reservations, but was running out of time so only took care of my plans through Kyoto.   The JR Pass can work easily for some itineraries, or if you’re familiar with the train system, but it does require some up-front time at the beginning of your trip to get all the reservations in place.   The staff at the Narita JR station were quite helpful and their English is excellent – they obviously deal with this situation all the time.   I can’t say how long it would take to get things handled if you came in during the normal arrival times for inbound flights from the US (between 2-6P).   We were in very late so there wasn’t any one around and no lines. After getting downtown about 3 ½ hours later than planned we checked into our hotel for the night, the Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi, and took care of logistics (re-packing, food, etc.).   We also took our extra bag over to our final hotel – one of the ways that I suggest people handle excess luggage when they have onward plans that require different clothing or equipment.   The Four Seasons Marunouchi was happy to take our bag and will have it sitting in our room when we arrive in about a week. So now we’re not schlepping around all those clothes we need for the family obligation at the end of the trip. The Hotel Metropolitan Marunouchi turned out to be a very nice option for a quick stay in Tokyo when leaving the next morning.   I will admit, even after many transfers through Tokyo Station, the place still befuddles me.   We wandered around quite a bit trying to find the right exit – this is partially because it was pouring rain and I preferred not to soak all our luggage walking around outside.  I know if we’d just left the station and walked outside we probably would have been just fine.   However, upon finding the right exit – the location turned out to be really GREAT!   It’s located right outside the Nihonbashi exit and there is a covered walkway to the building, so you don’t even have to walk out in the elements.   And, best of all, it is...
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Off to Japan Again

I’m going to be going to Japan next week.  It’s a trip that was planned a while ago and we decided to still go after getting all the information from our friends and contacts in the places we are visiting.  It will also give me a good chance to see exactly what is going on in areas that tourists frequent – to find out if reports of power outages, food shortages, despondent natives and all the other things that rumor mills are circulating have any truth in them.  I will be traveling as the average traveler to areas unaffected by the earthquake/tsunami/reactor accident and will be blogging as I go.  I suspect the most difficult part of the trip will be finding an internet connection in a few of the places so that I can post a report.   I’m looking forward to the trip as it will take me back to some of the first places I scouted when I started working with clients directly a few years ago.  We’ll be going to Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto and Tokyo.  We are also going to be working in a few special events which I will be reporting on as I go – so check back for reports starting next...
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Cultural Immersion Visits: Gold Leaf Artist

Cultural Immersion Visits: Gold Leaf Artist...

This is the first video we did, and still one of my favorites. This work is so amazing…
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A Steep Climb

A Steep Climb

Warriors in full battle armor running at speed – the image that comes to mind in the Musha Bashira, one of the outside passages of this ancient castle, designed to accommodate their girth with extra width and set below the floor – but suddenly they turn, confronted by an offset route and a steep set of stairs that are difficult negotiate even under ideal circumstances. Castles, even those constructed during more peaceful times, were built with both offensive and defensive positions in mind. Many early castles were built on high walls (see Kumamoto) or in locations designed to reduce the opportunity for attack. Other castles, like Matsumoto, were built in anticipation of gun warfare (with appropriate gun slots and thick walls) but were never used due to the end of civil wars at the start of the Edo period. Matsumoto’s primary defense is its moat, (which photographs beautifully in more peaceful times) as well as the de rigueur hidden floor. Inside, the halls and stairs are offset, designed to slow down intruders. Most challenging now, for the visitor, are the extremely steep stairs, especially as they are negotiated in stocking feet. Each staircase is progressively steeper until you reach the final one, which is at about a 70% angle AND has uneven steps that are of differing sizes. Today, the view from the top of the Japanese Alps and the city of Matsumoto make the climb worthwhile, even though dangerous. This castle also has a rare moon viewing room; the story goes that you can see the moon three times: once in the sky, once in the water and once in your cup of sake (six times if the sake is...