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Zoned Out – Day 6

Zoned Out – Day 6

Today in Kyoto we had cloudy humid weather, light traffic around town and a radiation reading of — oh, wait, Kyoto isn’t even in the “zone”.   Every day in the Japan Times, on the second page I think, there is a map of about 1/2 of Japan with concentric circles radiating out (ha!) from Fukushima.  Today’s reading for Tokyo was .064 microseiverts per hour.   Today’s reading for Sendai was .074.   Today’s reading for Nagano was .041.    Today’s reading for Shizuoka was .040.   And that’s as far west as the circles go – they don’t go past Shizuoka (about 95 miles from Tokyo) to Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka, Ise, Naoshima Island, Hiroshima, Miyajima and basically, over half of Japan to the west of Shizuoka.    The readings themselves, for the parts of Japan that are shown, with one obvious exception, are apparently the same or lower than many parts of the US; certainly lower than Mexico City and probably Denver, which have altitude. So instead of spending our days outside the zone, we spent today zoned out… at the Kamo Odori.   I would love to post a picture of this too, but cameras and videos are strictly forbidden.  So all I have is a picture of the curtain which I took before the performance started.   The Kamo Odori is one of several dance performance series put on by maiko (apprentice geisha); this one in May.   The other one is the Miyako Odori, which is in April.  If you’re in Kyoto during these months you can go to one of the shows. There were two parts to this event for us – the most hysterical part was the “tea ceremony” that preceded the show.   Our tickets included the “tea ceremony” – there is a reason I put it in quotes a lot.   This was the fastest tea ceremony ever – we laughed the entire time.   We were ushered onto an elevator, up the elevator to the fourth floor of the theatre building, into a room with about 5 long bench-like tables with small stools lined up in front of them.  In the front of the room sat a young maiko (I guess), perfectly made up with tea implements around and a second one doing something (don’t recall what, no time to observe).   The ushers pointed to us to sit down, one attendant went down the table placing a piece of paper, a small ceramic dish and a mochi with red bean paste inside on it.  Then out came another attendant and dropped a bowl of whisked tea in front of each person.   Then all the people around us either wolfed down the sweet or pocketed it, gulped down the tea, wrapped the dish in the paper and stood up and rushed out of the room.   We were just trying to figure out what to DO and the next group of people were rushed in and seated.   In the meantime, an attendant was scurrying along picking up the empty tea bowls – I’m sure I upset the plan when I didn’t finish my tea.  David ate the rest of my mochi…    All the while, the young ladies at the front sat motionless in some odd living still-life of a tea ceremony. After we were shooed out of the “tea room” they sent us down a flight of stairs, past the first shop of souvenirs.  Then down another flight of stairs, past another shop, this time with food souvenirs.  Then through a big...
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Festive Kyoto – Day 5

Festive Kyoto – Day 5

Today was an unusual confluence of festival events, with the annual Aoi Matsuri and the Mifune Matsuri both falling on the same day.   Matsuri is basically the Japanese word for Festival and Kyoto’s festivals are some of the most elaborate in Japan, with spectacular costumes, floats, horses, drums, and more.   They’re not festivals in the sense of all day eating. carnival booths, fireworks, etc.   The festival activities are, like much of Japan, quite structured and predictable.  We took in both in a whirlwind day. Starting at promptly 10:30, the first elegantly clad marcher in the Aoi Matsuri parade came around the corner of the Imperial Palace on a well-worn route.   Down the main road in front of the palace past first, a small band of adorable school kids (in assorted green, yellow and blue hats), then past those seated in the bright sunshine today, then on around a set course to the Kamigamo Shrine.   We got pictures of a wide range of horses in their finery, marches in assorted outfits, princesses under their gaily decorated umbrellas and a few floats being carried or horse-drawn.   We walked through the palace grounds towards the Shrine but the crowds got too thick, so we hopped a bus to western Kyoto, to Arashiyama. In Arashiyama the second festival was taking place just a little later in the day.  Again a parade from a shrine, only this one went to the edge of the water, where everyone boarded decorated boats and paddled about in the river.   Lots more picture taking opportunities.   One segment where they played traditional music and women danced on the boats.  There was  boat with a big drum; not sure what that was for.    We understand the various boating parties “paraded” around in the water for two hours. Both festivals had people lining the routes a few deep.   The weather was delightful, if a little hot when we were not in the shade.   Our guide was happy to describe some of the history of the festivals, they all harken back to some long-ago tradition but frankly I don’t remember which tradition and why so I’m not going to try to write it up like an expert.  Here is good information about the Aoi Festival and the Mifune Festival. Kyoto today was busy, happy and...
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Taking it Back – Day 4

Taking it Back – Day 4

OK, so I have to take some of yesterday’s observations back.  Today we explored Kanazawa and the further we get from Tokyo, the more we are finding things as we’d left them.   In Kanazawa, we ran into our first experience of the busloads of tourists we’d come to expect in Japan at some tourist stops. Our day started off with Kenroku-en garden, a famed strolling garden in the center of the city.   We always advise our clients to go early to avoid the bus crowds.  I tried to take our advice, although I’m admittedly not a morning person.  But up-and-at-’em, we were there by about 8:30 to try to avoid the crowds.  Alas, not possible as we entered with at least two busloads of people, in this case, from Taiwan.  While not westerners, at least some tourists are starting to return to Japan. Other places held more Japanese tourists as this was a Saturday and so likely had more people than a weekday.   We managed to have an incredibly productive day.  Our original schedule, with one of our local guides, called for 5 visits in about a 1/2 day.  I thought it was ambitious when it was laid out but hoped that maybe we could get it all done.   As it turns out, we were able to get in the original 5 things plus a brief walk-through of THREE additional places – including time for tea and a close inspection of the tsuba collection at our favorite ryokan in Kanazawa and a stop at the Museum of the 21st Century, which had an exhibit titled “Made in Japan 1960”.   It’s a wonderful wall of clocks from that era and, having grown up with these type of items around me, it had a more special meaning than perhaps it would have for the average Japanese person.   I’ve put in a picture here, but it’s hard to really tell unless it’s large how fun the range of clocks on display were.   I’ll write more about the rest of the places visited later (got to leave something to post in the months until I’m back in Japan!). Arrival into Kyoto drove home even more that there has been virtually no affect in this part of the country.  The train station was mobbed with locals, the restaurants were crowded and all the lights were on and the place is humming.   We arrived into our favorite hotel in town, the Hyatt Regency, and were greeted like family.   As noted in earlier postings, the saddest part about the disaster for the REST of the country is how difficult the world’s reaction has been on all the Japanese. I’m clearly biased, as I love the country, but I’ve been in the travel industry for over 20 years.  There is probably no better time to come to Japan right now as the tourism industry is working so hard to provide opportunities for foreign visitors.  Prices are amazing, the crowds are small and it’s one of the best times of the year for weather and activities.   I’m certainly glad to be back, even if I have to share it with slightly larger crowds than before, now that I’m in Kyoto. Tomorrow – TWO...
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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...