Tuesday, November 10, 2015

And that's a wrap, folks

Well it's been 30 days. 

We have travelled by train, tram, subway, bus, funicular, cable car, ferry, chair lift, bicycle and ferry. 

We have stayed in 11 towns or sites, at 8 hotels (7 hotels and 1 ryokan), 2 guest houses and 1 monastery. 

We took two bike trips, visited two aquariums and I don't know how many shrines, temples and castles. 

We have climbed so many steps that we have a new appreciation and fondness for our knees. 

We have eaten all the things and enjoyed pretty much all of it. 

We met so many wonderful, friendly, kind and interesting people. We have been treated with nothing but kindness. 

We spent our last morning just wandering the streets of Shibuya and Harajuko, enjoying not having a plan. 

And we finished up with a bowl of wonderful porky pork tonkatsu ramen 

Wilf did a brilliant job of planning our portion of the trip, and Sayuri-san and the Niimi folks made the first week memorable. 

And thank you to everyone who has commented and sent notes- it is good to know I'm not talking to myself!

Now it's time to go home! Sayonara, Japan

Words fail me

So. The robot restaurant. We did it. And it was hilarious. 

We had booked our tickets back in May through and online agency and we were at the ticket office when they opened just after 5:00 on Saturday. Once we were checked in we went down the street, around the corner and up two flights to the pre-show lounge. Which is probably the shiniest place I've ever been. 

Wilf considers the giant snail chairs. 

And the shiny robot band came out to play some smooth jazz for us. 

After the pre show set we went down for the main event.  

There wasn't a theme or a story. Part one was a drum battle between taiko drummers - one float filled with drums and bikini clad drummers, the other float with drums and people dressed as - banshees? And there were two smaller floats with regular drum kits adding to the rhythm. And then they all went away and out came more bikini gals and geishas. 

As you can see it is a surprisingly small space and things are happening right in front of us. 

Cultural portion done we move on to nature loving creatures battling evil robots. 

Lots of swords and pyrotechnics. 

And dinosaurs. 

Eventually, after the small dinosaur, spiders and a whale, T-Rex showed up to finish off the evil robot queen. 

Dancing robots

Big snake

Something to do with Superman, while singing 'Dreamgirls'

More robots 

More dancing

Getting ready for the finale!

Really - a splendid combination of shininess, loud music, tackiness, sushi and robots. The totally touristy thing to do. 

That cat!

You know that cat? The one that's everywhere? No, not Hello Kitty. Though heaven knows she surely is everywhere. 

I'm talking about the waving cat you seen about - often Chinese food restaurants. Turns out there's a story there. Once upon a time there was a poor monkey barely eking out a living at a temple. But he had a cat. Things are a little fuzzy here, but one night a shogun/noble/prince was forced to take shelter on the temple grounds. He saw the temple cat waving at him, beckoning him over. He went to investigate and lightening hit the tree he was by/the roof of his shelter fell in/catastrophe occurred. He was saved by the cat. In gratitude the shogun/noble/prince endowed the temple and it prospered. When the cat passed on it was enshrined on the grounds of the temple. The beckoning cat has since become a symbol of good fortune and prosperity. 

It turns out the maneki neko shrine is in a suburb of Tokyo, so of course we went to take a look. A couple of train and subway connections and an interesting walk through a neighbourhood (a lady who gave us directions was wearing a Niagara Falls, Canada t-shirt) brought us to the grounds of the temple. And there is a very impressive temple hall and a very interesting cemetery to visit. But tucked away behind the temple .....

A shrine to maneki neko. 

People still come and leave cat statues as thanks for good luck and business prosperity. 

Best laid plans. And the kindness of strangers.

Wilf found a place for us to visit that would be a day trip out of Tokyo. It wasn't in any guide books, but he found some descriptions online. So off we set. 

We walked to the nearest station and took the JR Yamanote line, which is the circle line that runs around the city. After five stops we transferred to another train line to head south. We spent an hour on the train, passing through Yokohama. We arrived at the town of Kurihama, a few stops before the end of the line. We picked up some boxes of sushi, and then realized that we had forgot to bring gravel with us. That led to a drugstore. I asked the pharmacist if she spoke English. When she said no I got my phone out to get to work. In the mean time she asked over her shoulder if any of her colleagues spoke English. You know, in case they had magically acquired the ability recently. One of the gals back there practically crawled under the counter to not have to deal with us! Anyhow, the magic wifi device and Google delivered the word for seasickness (in case you need to know it is norimonoyoi). Mr Google delivered the results in kanji and she knew right away what we needed. If we had been there all day we wouldn't have found this:

Suitably prepared we took a short taxi ride to the ferry port. While waiting for the 12:10 ferry we ate our sushi and soon enough it was time for about a dozen walk on passengers and a few cars to board a big ferry and roll our way across to the Boso peninsula. 

This is when the best laid plans thing started to unravel. The next step was supposed to be a short walk to a cable car. Turns out that is was super windy and the cable car was closed. And we're a pretty long way off the tourist track and there's not many people who speak English around. We find out that there is no bus, but we get a map in the English that indicates that there is a path. It also shows a tourist information centre not too far away. We walk there, only to discover it is a pizza restaurant. It wasn't clear to us if it was a pizza restaurant and tourist info centre, but the gal there helped us out by calling us a cab. And finally we were there.  

But Sharon - what was worth all this effort?

Carved into the side of the mountain is a Buddha. It is 31 metres tall. As you can see the fog was rolling down the mountain at a good clip - it is about  2:00 in the afternoon at this point. 

Of course there is a tour group up there. The guide, in full uniform of skirt, blouse, tie, hose and heeled shoes was waiting by the Buddha in a shelter. Some of her charges were hanging around and they were very curious about us, so we had a lot of conversation that was a merry mix of Japanese and English.  

Time to see the rest. Turns out the rest involved climbing a mountain. On the one hand - we climbed up a freaking mountain. On the other hand almost the entire way was on beautiful granite staircases with sturdy stainless steel railings. So there was that. The fog continued to roll in and the atmosphere got more and more spooky. As soon as we started up we met some more of tour group one in their matching green jackets. One guy looks at Wilf and says 'hey how old are you?' Wilf told him and the guys says 'Ha! I'm 83!'  So they shook hands and there was much laughing and we went our separate ways. 

All over this side of the mountains are statues of arhats. Arhats are beings who have advanced along the path of enlightenment but have not quite achieved buddhahood. There are some 1500 of these statues tucked into niches and caves. Each one is different and individual. 

We climbed up a lot. Down a lot. Through tunnels and arches. 

Sometimes I would begin to think - oh, this isn't going to end well. And then we meet someone coming from the other direction and we'd cheer each other on. Fortunately we had a good map, and just as we were getting to the last series of stairs that would bring us to the top I looked up and there was a guy standing there. In a dark suit. White shirt. Dark tie. Clipboard. WTF? Turns out he was the leaders of yet another group. A group of Buddhist priests. I don't know who was more surprised - me to see them, or them to find this shiny, sweaty redhead coming up the stairs (did I mention that it was about 20 degrees and foggy. Like hiking in a sauna). Of course there had to be formal bows and greetings as passed one by one, along with the where are you from questions. Wilf caught a picture as the end of their group passed into the mist. 


Our original plan had been to take a path down the front of the mountain back to town. (Seemed like a good idea before we went up!)

As I heaved myself up the last few stairs I could hear Wilf saying to someone, 'You have room for two?' There was a group of three that we had met up with on the way and were trailing behind and they were offering us a ride. And sure enough, when we rounded the (inevitable) vending machines at the top there was a parking lot with a beautiful big SUV. The man, his wife and their friend were day tripping. They spoke almost no English, but we had a laugh filled ride back down the mountain. They delivered us back to the ferry port and went on their way.   By the time we got there is was raining hard. I can't say how grateful we are for their kindness in offering us a ride. 

We still had a ferry ride and an hour and a half on two trains. But we did it. And yes, it was worth it. The mountains and the sculptures - it was all amazing. 

Sunday, November 8, 2015

1,200 years. And counting.

90 minutes from Osaka, in a valley high in the mountains is a special place. We knew we were in for something interesting when we arrived at our train. 

The train has been specially painted up to honour the 1200th anniversary of the temple complex at Koyasan. Our limited express train zoomed along to Hashimoto, then began the long climb up. We could feel the effort of the Diesel engines as they hauled us up up up. At the end of the line we boarded a funicular train that hauled us up even further, where we were met by a bus that took us to the town proper. By the end of the journey we were 800 metres above sea level. 

So what is worth all this effort? Way way back a Japanese Buddhist went to China to study, and upon his return he wanted a place to study, to meditate, to educate. There are many tales of how he wound up here, in this mountain valley that is surrounded by eight peaks that form the shape of a lotus. Now people can arrive as we did, or drive on up.  But for most of its history this has been the back of the back of beyond. In fact for many years women were not even allowed on the mountain. In 2004 the complex was named to UNESCO's world heritage list, which has increased traffic to the area. It is still a  site of pilgrimage. There are many temples in the town area, and back in the day they offered basic accommodation to pilgrims. Over time this was expanded to include travellers in general. 

We stayed at a temple called Muryokoin. One of the priests was born (this time, he assured us) in Zurich, which meant we had someone who could explain things to us. 

We had a very large room

Notice the table in the foreground? Those blankets are attached to the table. We would snuggle up with our feet under the table - where there was a heater! Brilliant. We also had a space heater, which was a good thing, because wow was the place cold!  No heat in the building itself, windows wide open. But we're toasty here. No private bathroom - men's and ladies down the hall, and communal  baths on the other side of the building. 

There is a specific cuisine at temples. It is, of course, vegetarian. But it is also non stimulating - no garlic, onions, ginger or chilis. We ate in a large hall with the non Japanese guests. 

The food was good, if bland. And mostly soft in texture. Lots of it. You can see the tea pots on the mats. At the end of the meal, after we had finished our rice, the tea was poured into the rice bowl. That way not a grain of rice was wasted. 

At this temple they conduct an elaborate service every morning, so we were up very early. We presented ourselves at the meditation hall just before 6:00 am. Fortunately there were chairs to sit on, and we were given a lap blanket. The floor was heated but the room was not. It was quite dark, inside and out and the candlelight sparkled off the golden decorations. 

The service - a fire service- lasted almost 90 minutes and involved the burning of 108 sticks representative of 108 failings or attachments. The monks chanted, bells were rung, passages from books were read, offerings were made. It was very interesting and fairly mysterious. After the service the Swiss priest spoke to us about Buddhism, this particular sect's beliefs and life in general. And then we had breakfast. 

And yes, the town and the temples were beautiful.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

A surprising thing.

Japan is full of surprises. Too many to list. But we've really noticed one - how many people still smoke. Clearly there are attempts being made - no smoking on planes, trains, ferries, buses. But there are smoking compartments on trains. Designated smoking areas outside train/subway stops and office buildings. Given the Japanese attention to detail and preference for cleanliness those smoking spots are startling because there are actually cigarette butts on the ground!

But the real issue is around restaurants. Some are non smoking. Most have a smoking area - and we know how well that works. And many don't seem to care. And people smoke hard - between every course, either at the table or they go outside. 

We've given up on one coffee shop altogether. Caffe Veloce has nice coffee and pastries, but it is clearly a smokers place. 

Most surprising to me is the number of very young people smoking. Quite different than Canada where smoking was made a workplace health and safety issue, which got it out of the restaurants. And of course there is the ongoing demonization of smoking in the west.

Enough on that - here's a picture of s little cutie we met on her way to a Hallowe'en party!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Say my name, say my name.

When we were working on the planning of this trip Bob McLure, one of our fellow travelers, suggested that we have business cards made up - English on one side, Japanese on the other. He even facilitated the translation and production of the cards for the group. Bob was certainly correct about the usefulness of having the cards - we exchanged them with people while in Niimi, but have continued to give them to people as we travel about. 

Translating my first name wasn't a huge challenge, as western names go. Japanese recognizes sha ro and n so three kana are required and we're done.  (I don't know how to make the iPad write katakana you'll have to take my word for it.)

Wilf was a bit more of a challenge. Japanese doesn't have a wi sound, nor an l, nor a standalone f. That means his name came out as uirifu. And of course his last name comes out as Rambo, which causes great giggles.  We stayed one night at a temple and the head priest was referring to Wilf as Rambo-San. 

In Japan personal and corporate seals are used in most places where we would use signatures or initials. At the post office, for instance, if you were receiving a package instead to signing to acknowledge receipt you would use your personal stamp. That means that there are businesses that produce these stamps. In the west we hear them referred to as chops, which is the Chinese name. In Japan they are called hanko. Wilf found a little class we could take where we would learn how to carve our own stone hanko, so on Monday morning in Osaka off we went. 

Rather than try to cram our whole western names into a little square the plan was to take the first letter of our translated name  - sha in my case, and u in Wilf's. The shop owner and our guide then came up with several different kanji for that sound and we picked the meaning that we liked best. Then they wrote out several versions of the kanji and we picked the one we liked the look of the best. The master then inked the selected kanji onto the stone, provided us each with a small knife and let us at it. 

No pressure. 

After we had carefully cut away for awhile and thought we were done the master, his wife, his father, the assistant and our guide all said nice things about our work.  Then the master and the assistant settled in to tidy up what we had done. 

The picture below shows our two impressions. The top one on each sheet is our effort, and the bottom one is after a little remedial tidying up. The master also carved our names onto the side, along with a kanji that says 'made this' so it says Sharon made this and Wilf made this. 

Uirifu on the left, Sharon on the right. 

The master and his students!

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Name that castle!

We've seen a lot of castles on this trip. 

Lots of big stone walls

Kochi castle

Osaka castle - where not only are the stone walls big, but the stones are massive. The one Wilf is leaning on is called the octopus rock and I couldn't back up enough to get every bit of it in. 

Okayama castle

Osaka castle

Matsuyama castle

Riding the chairlift down from Matsuyama castle. 

I mean no disrespect to any of the many castles we saw, but I think we will declare Himeji castle the most impressive. For six years the main tower of the castle has been under wraps undergoing a major restoration. In March of this year the wrapping came off and the newly revitalized castle was open for business again. The castle, which only about 30 minutes by high speed train from Osaka, is a huge attraction. They can handle 15,000 people per day. We were going to be there on a Saturday, so we headed out early to try to get ahead of the crowds but it was still crazy.

It is an impressive site, rising a above the city. Nicknamed the white egret, the 5 story tower is the centrepiece of a huge complex. Every design decision about the main part of the castle was made to ensure maximum defensive capabilities. The approach is full of twists and turns, of gates and dead end approaches. There are moats and secret areas to hide soldiers as well and dozens and dozens of places from which to shoot arrows,or guns. As it turns out, the castle was never attacked, but they were ready!

We met a volunteer guide who gave us a three hour tour. He told us all kinds of things we would have missed. In order to manage the number of daily visitors two opposing staircases move people up and down. Sometimes the staircase verged upon being a ladder! And all this in stocking feet.  Though you can see five stories from the outside, there are actually six as there is a basement level. 

Two huge pillars hold up the interior floors. This one is from the original 1600 construction. The footing in the basement has been replaced, but the remaining portion is original. Its mate on the other side was replaced during the last restoration 50 years ago. 

Our guide knows how to take picture.

Goofing around

We went to the Osaka aquarium. Out front is a model of a shark. Everyone else is posing beside it, all smiles. 

Not my guy. 

I wonder how many photos of his butt will wind up on the internet?