Our first morning in Tokyo, we woke up hours before sunrise to make our way to the famous Tsukiji fish market, where all the top sushi chefs bid on the freshest tuna of the day. When we got close, we met an Aussie also searching for the market and combined forces as we wandered a massive complex of warehouses and market stalls. We were impressed by the Aussie because he had spent a week in Japan with two domineering friends, and after only seeing bars and night clubs in Tokyo and Osaka, he got fed up with his friends and resolved to wake up early on the last day of his trip to see the fish market. The Aussie was relentlessly chipper and optimistic, and we admired how he saw going to the fish market as a quiet symbol of pride and principle.
Around 4am, we found the proper booth for signing up for the tour. The first viewing group had already been filled, so 30 people were sitting criss-cross applesauce on the floor of the waiting area. We caught spots in the second group, donned our blue vests that marked us as Tour Group 2, and waited with the first group an hour and a half until the tours started. While waiting, we met a young German tourist who had spent a year traveling across Asia, hitchhiking most of the way. He spoke passionately about Myanmar, Nepal, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other places.
When the tours started, it was beautiful chaos. We tourists were herded into a tiny viewing area in the corner of the warehouse where the tuna is brought in for judging. We were surrounded by pallets while workers moved the frozen tuna on dollies from warehouse to warehouse and dragged them across the factory with mini harpoon hooks to place them closer together. In other parts of the warehouse, hundreds of massive tuna lay sprawled in neat lines, but in the space where we were, the choice selection of a few dozen tunas were displayed for the meat procurers of Tokyo's best restaurants. Meat procurers and chefs joked, making fun of each other, sharply poking elbows into each others' ribs while casually lifting the tail end of massive tuna with hooks, checking the quality of the fish. They meandered over to rows of tables to examine the cheek meat of the tuna, which had been removed and displayed.
Then, the bidding started. The auctioneer was an animated man in his early middle ages who had a few grays here and there and was wearing a hard hat and utility belt filled with pads of papers, receipts, and writing utensils. He had the aura of a thin schoolboy, and all the writing utensils only strengthened his sprightly appearance. A worker struck a heavy iron bell, which rang deeply, and the floor was silent. Then, the auctioneer's voice boomed across the wafts of fish smells, creating a strangely pleasing experience for our senses. He had what I considered to be an "auctioneer's voice," but this man's quick speaking was more musical and clear than the cattle auctioneers I was used to hearing. The only "muddled" part of his voice had nothing to do with him and everything to do with the tangle of sounds in our head that come with not understanding the language. The unintelligible sounds, however, were punctuated by things we could understand, like the crowd before him nodding heads and lifting hands to signal a new bid on a tuna.
The auction itself lasted perhaps ten minutes. We left in a daze, herded again in single file by friendly and raucous security guards who enjoyed the spectacle aspect of the crowds and tourists. Under the guidance of these security guards, we toured the factory grounds and saw the vast rows of warehouses where the gritty work is done. Walking between warehouses was the strangest experience, because forklifts and vans were zipping through the walkways, and we were walking between them. The rule of thumb was that the workers drove like we did not exist, and the security guards made sure we were not run over. We would have to be alert and dodge from one side of the road to the other, and the workers went about their business. Overall, Katelyn and I loved the experience, but we got the impression that we were an inconvenience to the majority of the workers. It made us a bit uncomfortable to gawk at hard working men as they did their jobs. If I had been working ten years at the fish market, I would not be too happy about having a crowd of foreign tourists holding cameras up and making me out to be a "sight."
After our tour, we ate some ridiculously delicious tuna for breakfast at a little sushi bar in the market that advertised an early riser special. We knew it was a tourist spot, but we decided to chance it. It was a very good decision. It was by far the best sushi we ate in Japan, and the sushi chef was mesmerizing to watch. He seemed to turn his talents up a notch when a young German boy, probably about nine or ten, watched him cut fish. The shift was almost imperceptible, but when the boy's father ordered a "chef's choice meal," the chef made a point of fishing a small octopus out of the aquarium behind him, moving right in front of the boy, and slamming the octopus on the counter to kill it. The young German boy tried, unsuccessfully, to hide his discomfort as the octopus continued to squirm, even after the fatal blow. The chef knew exactly what he was doing and had the subtle look on his face of loving it.
Satiated and realizing it was only 8am, we then traveled to Nikko, an hour north of Tokyo by bullet train, to walk around the gorgeous park and visit some temples. Even if we had not seen so much beauty, the trip would have been worth it just for the train ride. Smooth sailing across what felt like air. It hardly felt like we were moving as city gave way to country outside our window.
I think we visited at least three or four temples, and all were incredibly beautiful and intricate. We walked from the train station to the temples, a nice forty minute stroll down a small town street struggling not to be overcome by tourist kitsch. They succeeded wonderfully. When we reached the park, we were met by the bright red Shinkyo bridge. The water rushing underneath was crystal clear. We then traveled up numerous hills and stairs to reach an entire circuitry of temple grounds. We made it through the grounds of Toshogu and Rinnoji temples as well as some smaller ones along the way, all the while marveling at the Nikko National Park that surrounds the temple grounds. It was peaceful and refreshing to walk around the temple areas, even if there were hundreds of elementary school groups walking with us. The kids were honestly the most entertaining thing we had seen so far; they were so fun and incredibly excited and polite wherever we went.
We got caught in the rain on the way back to the train station and found ourselves running around Tokyo in the rain for a while. While wandering and waiting for the rain to let up a little, we stepped into an amazing yakitori restaurant and ate pork tongue and delicately grilled octopus, as well as Ramen salad and stir fry noodles with pork. We rushed around town from Ikebukuro, a youth area rich with shopping and food, to Akihabara, the promised land of plentiful anime shops and overloaded video game arcades.
In Ikebukuro, we lost ourselves in seas of people that were moving steadily down the streets and churning together at each intersection. We headed for Mimi's rabbit cafe to eat dessert and drink tea in an open room with rabbits moving freely from table to table. The thought of cuddling bunnies and feeding them carrots and celery had Katelyn cooing. The cafe itself was tough to find, mainly because it was on the 8th floor of a street front shop that stacked its attractions. We eventually decided that it would be best to ask some locals, so we did our best to explain to three teenage girls that we were looking for "usagi." After a good deal of fidgeting like bunnies, we bridged the language barrier and giggled together. Then, one of the girls surprised us by taking on a five minute journey across the street, through the crowds, and to our destination. After she dropped us off at the rabbit cafe, we said our goodbyes, and she began the walk to rejoin her friends. The journey was wonderful, thankfully, because after all that, it turns out that the rabbit cafe was closed for a vacation day! We were disappointed, but at least we had made a good memory finding the cafe.
We loved the streets of Ikebukuro, but after the disappointment of the rabbit cafe, we decided to go to Akihabara and seek out an experience to replace the rabbits. I wanted to go to a robot cafe, a bar with men on segways dressed like giant robots dancing during a laser light display, but Katelyn was wisely skeptical. She eventually agreed that we would go, and we got into a taxi cab. We could not find the address of the robot cafe, so we quickly looked up the address of a nearby famous maid cafe, where young women dress up as maids and serve food. When we gave him that address, he launched into a diatribe in Japanese, clearly upset about driving to Akihabara. These were the first cross words we had heard in Japan, and we felt our stomachs drop to have displeased him, but we knew that we could not reverse how he felt about tourists and largely dismissed the tense taxi cab ride as a grumpy middle aged man upset at his job.
Disillusioned about the robot cafe after the taxi cab ride, we walked into a four-story Pachinko arcade, a Japanese casino that is a palace of loud sounds and bright lights, where hundreds of people sit with blank faces at machines and play for hours. We turned 1000 yen ($8) into game tokens and played a game for 10 or 15 minutes. Katelyn and I got a little into it, and we netted another 1000 yen of game tokens much to our dismay. If we tried to spend it all ourselves, we would be here for far too long. Somewhere on the fourth floor, we left our bucket of extra game tokens with a particularly addicted girl who much appreciated the extra tokens.
The rest of Akihabara was a little too geared toward teenage boys for us. The rain clouds that had been spitting every now and then opened wide, and we took refuge under an awning with dozens of other people, including one of the maids from the maid cafe. Katelyn and I started to enter, but we only made it to the doorway before we got way too uncomfortable and turned around. I had thought that the maid experience would have a more Downton Abbey feel to it, but the first thing we saw was a young woman dressed up as a French maid throwing herself on the ground trying to serve the guest, we think by tying his shoes. This was not a place for us, and apparently, we were not alone. After a few days of conversation with Japanese locals, we got the impression that no one visits these places except for tourists and teenage boys. I suddenly empathized completely with our taxi cab driver, who was probably a conservative middle aged man, proud of his country and culture, who would never visit such a trashy place himself but sees scores of foreign tourists visit it, knowing that they will go back to their home countries, saying, "We have seen Japan's culture, and this is what it is!" What a frustrating experience for him.
It was still raining, but Katelyn and I didn't want to be in Akihabara any longer. I had lost absolutely all desire to go to even a robot cafe, so I crossed the street in the rain and found two umbrellas at the first store I tried. Luckily, it rains all the time in Japan, and most of the non-fancy storefronts have cheap clear umbrellas for sale. With our new umbrellas, we left the scene and headed back to the train station for Meguro, where our host family in Tokyo lived.
After the train ride, the walk to Meguro was fantastic. It was around 11pm, and even at that late hour, we were able to walk through a park attached to an apartment building and stop into a giant media store. We marveled at the low cost of books, which were being sold for 100 yen ($1). No wonder we had seen so many people reading on the train. Reading is unbelievably affordable in Japan. After the media store, we navigated winding roads, which narrowed to the point that we had to move to the side for bicycles and cars. Trees overhung the roads, and we felt like we were in a cozy lived-in neighborhood.
The next day, we woke up at a more reasonable hour than 3am, walked around our host's section of town in Meguro, and grabbed breakfast at a little French patisserie. There are little bakeries and patisseries all across Japan; it seems to be the very fashionable thing to do there, and they were all amazingly tasty. We then headed into Shibuya to cross the famous Shibuya Crossing full of people traveling all over city, then made our way to Kichijoji in hopes of catching the Ghibli Museum. Unfortunately when we got there we found that the museum tickets had been sold out for the months of June and July for some time. However, the museum is in beautiful Inokashira Park, so we walked around the park for a while and enjoyed the birds and trees and trails. We made reservations for a cat cafe and sat in a coffee shop to wait our turn.
Cat cafes might be the most amazing and ridiculous things ever. We walked into a fairy tale forest complete with a ceiling painted to look like the sky and fake trees from which the cats could sit and watch the people eat from bone china and scamper with kittens. We took way too many pictures there. Time ran away from us, and we realized we needed to head to Kyoto fast!
Our poor host family was worried about us, but we were able to contact them and tell them we were running late due to time miscalculation and cat craze. We came in around 11pm to a wonderful woman named Haruna and a smile and hug. She showed us her beautiful little home and told us to make ourselves comfortable. She had tea and water waiting for us as well as a laundry basket for our dirty clothes so she could wash them the next morning. Adorable beyond words.
There's more. We stepped into our room and lost it. She had balloons and a sign saying "Congratulations!" as well as a little hand-crafted note welcoming us to her home and hoping we have a wonderful stay. The room was Hello Kitty themed, and she had left us everything we could ever need. There are two little teddy bears dressed as a bride and groom hanging from our door. So much cute exploded over the room, I thought I might explode of happiness as well.
The first morning at Haruna's, we woke up early to hang out with her family for breakfast. It took a moment for the kids to process that their visitors had just bounded down the stairs for breakfast, and they took a few minutes to slowly look us over and take us in as they did their normal morning routines. Haruna later told us that we were the earliest rising traveler guests they had had. The other travelers from Georgia had usually gotten up around 9am or 10am, so she had assumed we would. However, we really wanted to introduce ourselves to the kids as early as possible, so we came down as the sun rose.
Aoba, her oldest boy at 6, went off to school soon after breakfast, and before he departed, we asked if he had any tests that day. Haruna explained that he would have a swimming test, because at Aoba's school, they have a pool and teach all the students to swim as part of the gym curriculum. Sign me up, please!
We hung out the rest of the morning with Haruna and her three year old, Hakuto. He was a precocious little guy but so well behaved. He focused all his curiosity and energy on adorable things like showing us the fish outside his front door and catching rolly pollies, which are called daishumushi in Japanese because when rolled they look like the snack by the same name.
As soon as Hakuto would find a daishumushi, he would pick it up and drop it into a little plastic carrier that he held by the handle. He eventually found a beautiful hairy caterpillar hiding along the inside rim of a flower pot. We guided his hand away from the caterpillar and gave him a feather, which he used to gently stroke the caterpillar.
While we caught bugs with Hakuto, Haruna talked to a police inspector who had come by on business. The inspector was in a uniform, but it was not a police uniform. He was in relaxed white linen, and I would have thought him a friendly neighbor, but he was holding a clipboard, so I figured he must be not just a neighbor. My first guess was maybe a mailman or neighborhood volunteer, but when he started to look at her car, which was parked in the parking spot between her house and the street, the story started to come into focus.
Later, we learned that Haruna and her husband had recently bought a new car, and despite assurances that it would be, the police inspector wanted to make sure that the car was not too wide for her house's parking spot. Part of me could see the reason for the inspection. The parking spot ran parallel to the road, so a wide car could slightly overhang into the shoulder of the road. No one wants a passing car to clip a parked one after all, but Haruna's car was incredibly slim by American standards and was well within the lines. Also, this was just the initial inspection, and we felt bad that she would have to go through more rounds, but she explained that it was normal protocol in Nagaokakyo. If her car was deemed too wide, she would have to find a spot to rent a few blocks away and walk to her house each day. Later, Katelyn and I daydreamed about how her dad would take it if an inspector came and said his car was too wide for his driveway at his own house. It would not go well to say the least.
We loaded up in Haruna's car, and because this was before we knew her true music preferences, she played a radio station dedicated to very vanilla J Pop and American pop. We soon arrived at Komyoji Temple, the town's local temple, which was truly more pleasing to us in its design than anything in Nikko. We walked up a long series of stone steps that was lined with trees. In the autumn, Japanese tourists would come to Nagaokakyo to see these trees turn red, but even in the summer, they were beautiful.
When we reached the midpoint of the steps, Hakuto and I gathered a few round acorns and gently rolled them down the long stairs. They kept their momentum gracefully for much longer than I thought possible and petered to their resting place on the lower steps. When we reached the stop of the stairs, I gathered a few more acorns, and Hakuto picked up a rock, which suddenly made me realize what a terrible influence I am.
We switched the rock with an acorn, stressed the gentleness of the rolls, and then walked to the temple and took off our shoes. Once inside, we prayed and discussed life and religion with Haruna. She asked what we had prayed about, and when we told her that we had both been thinking about illnesses and loved ones, she explained that prayers in Japan did not have to be about deep and heavy subjects. She said they could be about asking for luck and success, and frankly, that prayers in Japan were commonly specific and light. This shifted some of how we approached the temples we visited and gave us great insight.
Haruna also told us that the novelist Murakami was born in Nagaokakyo and his father had worked as a monk at that very temple. This blew our minds. I had just started reading Norwegian Wood, Murakami's first book, and maybe, just maybe, could see the influences of being raised by a monk positively in the book's sensory images that seem from an older world and negatively in the book's rebelliousness that harkens a new world, as well as the noticeable absence of a parental figure in the protagonist's life. Katelyn and I spent some time wondering what their father and son relationship had been like.
We then visited Haruna's father, who ran a small antique shop in Nagaokakyo that Haruna called his hobby home. After retiring from a career teaching art to high schoolers, he had built this little house to have a store front below and living quarters above. He had big glasses and an even bigger smile, especially when he showed off his shop. He had beautiful antiques, including fine china plates with blue designs and tea sets.
After a tour of the shop and a lengthy conversation with Haruna serving as interpreter, he even showed us some of his woodworking, which included a beautifully carved shoehorn. The shoehorn had once begun as one solid piece of wood, but it had become an intricate combination of curves and interconnected chain links. As impressive as this was, it did not prepare us for what was next.
Our absolute favorite item was a windup children's toy made from tin that was a series of ducklings being led by their mama duck. Each duckling was attached one behind the other like train cars, and when you wound the side crank, the line of duckies would scoot across the floor as the wheels underneath them spun. Hakuto loved the duckies very much, almost as much as Katelyn.
We then parted ways with Haruna, Hakuto, and Haruna's grandfather and headed via train to central Kyoto. Once in Kyoto, we walked to our heart's content, taking in all the visual delights of the city. We especially loved the streets in Kyoto, even more so when there was laundry hanging on the porches to dry. We walked so much that the day's mileage on foot was 16 miles. Our first day in Tokyo had been 15 miles, and our second day in Tokyo was 13 miles, so we had a string of three pretty good days for walking.
We wandered around Kyoto and saw a million gardens, temple, and museums. Well, maybe not millions, but we have heard that there are 1600 temples and shrines in the city, so I guess our estimate of a million is not too far off. The temple highlight for us was Kennin-Ji, where we saw fabulous screen door paintings, as well as an absolutely stunning worship room. At Kennin-Jin, above the statue of the Buddha is a black and white ceiling called the "Twin Dragons," which made guests gasp as they saw it. To explain, "Twin Dragons" is an ink painting on thick paper that depicts two dragons and their pearls. It was commissioned for the 800 year anniversary of the Kennin-Ji, which was in 2002, and completed by only one artist over the course of a year. He inked the painting on the floor of a school gymnasium, and then the temple workers attached it to the ceiling. We marveled at its beauty and intricacy, but the person who appreciated it the most was a little old Japanese woman who gasped in awe when she saw the artwork and had to steady herself on a column.
We took a stroll down Gion, which is the famous Geisha district, and we stopped for lunch at a delicious traditional food house, where we feasted on a multi-course dinner that must have been dreamed up by our imaginations, because we did not have names for all the delicious foods we ate.
About two hours and a few tea houses later, we found a pond and a lovely garden shrine tucked away behind some buildings in Kyoto. We spent a long time resting here, and before we continued, we extended our quiet reflection by stopping into a cafe where the owner truly loved coffee. He had the best selections of beans, ground them fresh, and used a percolation method where he lit a candle underneath the water. Doing so manipulated the air pressure around the vacuum, causing the water to rush up to meet the grounds, mingle, and drain back down, leaving nothing but deliciousness. The process, apparently popular in Japan, looked like a science experiment from a medieval laboratory, perhaps conducted by an alchemist.
When watching the process, I made my second attempt of the trip to use the Translation app our friend Phillip had shown us. The first went well enough, and I wanted to further test the program and show our appreciation. Here's what I wrote for translation:
Thank you so much. I did not realize how wonderful this cafe would be when I entered. We like beautiful coffee and teas, and we are thrilled to drink what you brewed. Also, the cakes are delicious. The chocolate has made my wife extremely happy. Thank you for helping us translate the menu. I apologize if these sentences do not make sense. Hopefully, the machine will capture our appreciation for your beautiful food, beautiful glassware, and beautiful candle. How you make coffee over the candle is fascinating. It is a beautiful process.
He seemed to enjoy the translation, and we began a difficult and broken conversation where he showed us how the coffee machine worked. He also walked us through his beans and described the flavors of coffee he liked and chased. That math and music are universal languages is not surprising, but it is always amazing how much you can communicate about food despite language barriers. Before leaving the shop, I tried one last translation:
I am proud to have tasted coffee brewed from this trend. You are correct. It is smooth and evenly distributed. In the past, I liked the harsh taste of expresso, but this is much more pleasurable. Thank you for explaining so much to us. We are now wanting to buy this glassware from a store in Japan, wrap it in blankets, and take it onto the plane, but we know this idea is impractical. It is a dream. Thank you again for sharing your coffee and thank you for sharing your knowledge. You have warmed our hearts with your coffee.
Our sentiments seemed to translate well, and to be honest, that was probably the last I used the translator on the trip. Something about our exchange in the cafe was so satisfying that I didn't turn back to it again. Instead, I enjoyed the physical gestures and meaningful eyes of people.
We finally reached our major destination for the day, the Philosopher's Path. The walkway was named for a famous philosopher from the past 100 years whose daily walk from temple to temple was enshrined as a place for contemplation in motion. It was a gorgeous walk along a small stream with overhanging trees. The stream itself was so clear that it was non-existent, an attribute I had noticed at all the places we had been so far and not unique to only such a cherished landmark. Inside the water were fat, fat fish who would get purposefully stuck in huge globs of river plants and struggle through them to knock lose the oh so tasty treats inside. At first, we were afraid that the fish could not free themselves. It took nearly ten minutes for the first fish we watched to wiggle through, but in the end, we gained a respect for those wily old fish. I think the smaller fish of the stream shared our respect, because they would wait behind their big battering rams and catch the crumbs of the meal.
We finished the Philosopher's Path and took a taxi back to Kyoto Station. It was getting dark, and there was no way we could make it back to the train station by a decent hour. We were supposed to send Haruna an email so she could pick us up at Nagaokakyo Station, but we did not want to trouble her around dinner time, so did a combination of walking and taxi. Exhausted, we made our way back to Haruna's for kid time. Haruna lightly scolded us for not emailing, and we knew the next day we would have to accept a ride.
We spent the evening running around like crazy, making sure we undid all their well behaved ways. Now that we had been introduced for a day, Aoba and Hakuto were ready to play, play, play. Katelyn and I became monsters for what seemed like an hour at least, and we have some fun videos filmed by the boys. Embarrassingly, even the three year old showed me some ways to navigate my phone that I did not know. What fun!
UJI / NARA
Haruna had fixed an extra big breakfast, and we devoured it with plenty of help from two hungry boys as we caught up with the latest news from the day. Aoba had passed the freestyle part of his swimming test, so he now had the backstroke (ironically) in front of him. We watched Japanese cartoons with the boys. Just like the morning before, I declined coffee when asked at the end of the meal to prevent Haruna from having to brew a pot. Just like the morning before, Katelyn tapped my foot under the table. Of course. Haruna had already made a pot, was saving it for after breakfast, and was too good of a host for me to prevent her any work. I had two cupfulls.
Aoba headed off to school, and the two of us left for Uji, a town famous for the matcha behind green tea. This little town was devoted to all things matcha and many stands and little eateries advertised its matcha pride by displaying green flags, green noodles, green gobs of mochi balls, or green ice cream cone statues. That's right. Green ice cream cone statues, signifying that they served matcha flavored ice cream, which we adored.
In Uji, we visited a small tea factory, where we were able to take a class where we roasted our own tea leaves. The instructor was incredibly helpful, and we stirred the fresh leaves with chopsticks in a big skillet and watched them dry out and brown. Part of the way through our drying, a group of three old local women who must have been regulars at the tea factory came in, sat down, and began hand-cranking a mill that grinder the leaves into small bits. The instructor would drift over to them to laugh and chat as we stirred. Eventually, she bundled up our personally made tea leaves and let us sample the type of tea we made. We left excited to try our tea that night.
Our next stop of the day was Nara, one of the many former capitals of Japan and home to many Buddhist temples. The reason we had come, however, were the famously tame deer that freely roam the grounds of Nara. Once we got near the central gardens and temples, we saw groups of deer migrating from one spot to another. These deer were so tranquil that when you bow, they will even bow back.
Our first close experience with a deer was when we approached a fence where deer can come and go freely. At first, I thought it was like a petting zoo, but now I think a few of the older deer will come and rest on the grassy hill within the fence because they know tourists stop there first and have a penchant for bringing food to the spot. For a tired deer, it's a great spot to relax, get your head scratched, and maybe pick up a snack that isn't grass you have to graze. When Katelyn scratched the deer's neck, the deer got very excited and would not stop licking Katelyn's hand. The sweet girl had a bit of a limp when she stood up, but we fell in love quickly with her kind spirit.
We walked around Nara, meeting scores of deer, our favorite maybe being the one that was eating from the low branches of a tree. The carts with snacks had already gone in for the day, and we could not blame them. It was a rainy late afternoon, and the number of tourists had probably dwindled, and the supplies were probably running low. We did see a woman who had brought biscuits be swamped by a group of deer. This is not the woman or the day, but we found a video on YouTube that show how the deer get quite persistent when snacks are involved.
We spent our hour layover in a massive bookstore connected to the train station. Normally, I would say we perused the books, but more accurately, we wandered rather aimlessly, unable to read any of the spines. It was a strange experience. We are accustomed to getting excited in bookstores from seeing so many ideas, stories, and lifetimes shelved together, but with no knowledge of the language, we were distant and a little ho hum about the books.
Sure, we marveled at the cover illustrations, vertical typeset, and uniform white color of the cover designs, but it was a surface appreciation rather than a deep reverence. In fact, the uniformity of the book designs probably blinded us to the differences within the books themselves. At the used bookstore in Tokyo, we could navigate much easier because the books were different ages, colors, and sizes, and they were organized into categories that had Roman lettered subtitles like "Art," "Philosophy," and "Poetry." This store was largely manga and pop fiction, so other than for a few sections that we could tell were "Cooking" and "Children's," the books blended together for us.
We decided to buy gifts for the boys with our spare time and spare pocket change. Because we are nerds, we started with selecting books. For Aoba, we found a copy of a lovely illustrated book about a hedgehog pup who wanders outside and eventually gets tucked into bed by his mother. That's all we could tell of the plot, but Katelyn's favorite animal is a hedgehog, so on the inside cover, we wrote a message to Aoba that Katelyn and I would one day have a hedgehog as a pet.
For Hakuto, we found "Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar." One of Hakuto's favorite puzzles is the cover illustration from "Hungry, Hungry Caterpillar," and Katelyn had put it together with him several times the day before. While putting together the puzzle, Katelyn had asked Haruna if he liked the book as well. Haruna was surprised. She did not know there was a book. My guess is that she had gotten the puzzle because Hakuto likes catching bugs. Regardless, we knew we had to get him a book to match his puzzle.
Next, we found the puzzle section. We got Aoba a collection of five map puzzles that came in a bundle. Each map puzzle showed a different continent, but sadly there was no Australia or Antarctica. I was excited to see how they would have done an Antarctica puzzle. Just one big piece?
We found a map puzzle of Japan for Hakuto that seemed nifty. From the top, each piece was a different prefecture, but when you lifted the piece, however, it showed the train lines that run through the prefecture. We thought it was amazing, but we did not realize that even the tiniest prefectures would be individual pieces. I had noticed growing up that map puzzles of the United States would group Rhode Island, Deleware, and Connecticut together for practical reasons like Little Boyd would lose small pieces or try to eat them. Well, if Little Boyd had grown up in Japan, I would have choked because some of these pieces were beyond tiny. It would be like a map puzzle of Europe including the Vatican City as a piece or a map puzzle of the United States doing each Hawaiian Island. We only realized this much later after giving Hakuto the gift. Whoops! We just hoped the puzzle would not give Haruna too much of a headache with little lost pieces strewn about the house.
Our layover ended, and when we arrived at Nagaokakyo Station, Haruna finally got her chance to pick us up. It was a lovely ride, and our first time to talk to Haruna alone, because the kids were spending quiet time at home with their dad, Yasuyuki, who was home from work.
When we came home, we secretly took the gifts upstairs to hide until when we left the next morning and joined everyone around the table. We shared snacks and discussed about our travels, as well as their trip to California, which involved renting a car to travel Route 66 and going to Disney. Once we heard about the details of their California trip, we began noticing the little remembrances of the trip. The refrigerator was decorated with California magnets, the kids had Mickey Mouse shirts, and there was a novelty California license plate on the dashboard of Haruna's car.
Yasuyuki had a great, warm sense of humor and was a lover of American muscle cars. I told him about the Mustangs that my grandfather Daddy Bill restored, and he wanted to know what years, and after telling him, we searched Google Images to look at pictures of Mustangs. We swapped stories while the kids lay on the floor watching an animated show on a little tablet, and then we drank a cup of a delicious Korean liquor while the kids had their bedtime glasses of water. Soon, we called it a night. Unfortunately, I got preoccupied with a work call that took awhile, but otherwise, we got good sleep and awoke early the next morning.
Thankfully, it was the weekend, so we got to play with Aoba as well as Hakuto. Aoba had passed his swimming test by having mastered the backstroke, and he was already working on his English exercises that morning. Every now and the, he would come up to his mom to ask for a translation. Whether the exercises were from class or Antonio, his English tutor, I wasn't sure, so I asked Haruna. She said she wasn't sure either. That impressed the heck out of me. This kid was independently getting a little bit of work done on Saturday morning as he as his brother watched cartoons.
Soon, work time was over, and we were playing. Katelyn and I, erhm, I mean, monsters, were chasing the boys through the house. We eventually chased them upstairs to their playroom, and they took cover in the bedroom, where we discovered Haruna and Yasusuki's impressive multi-shelf collection of West Coast old school hip hop.
After playtime, we asked Haruna about all the Dre and Snoop, and she explained that Yasusuki had a turntable and boxes upon boxes of records in the attic. I tried to convince that he should proudly display that turntable in the guest room, but my impression was that she thought guests might be uncomfortable if they knew she and her husband were rap fans.
We talked music and shared clips of our favorite songs. She knew all about Kendrick Lamar's new album, so the only thing I could really introduce her to was Walle. As we sipped tea and talked, Haruna put on a Warren G album. It played in the background for about twenty minutes, but eventually, about the time the discussion turned to her study abroad days in England, which mirrored my and Katelyn's study abroad days in English, the music became a bit distracting, and we turned it off.
The time was nearing to leave, but we found it hard. The family was tremendous, and Katelyn remarked that she could spend the whole vacation happily in Nagaokakyo. Before saying our final goodbyes, we brought the kids their presents to open. I had read that gift can be socially impolite in Japan, and I think it might have bothered Haruna a bit, but I'm so glad we did it anyway. The kids enjoyed their books and puzzles.
Soon, we were all loaded up in the car, listening to hip hop and heading to the train station. We melted as the kids said their final goodbyes. Haruna's family was the emotional highlight of our trip, and while it hurt to leave, we cherished having met such a kind, beautiful, and loving family. When we walked up the steps to Nagaokakyo Station, Katelyn got quiet in a way that I've learned to recognize as her maternal instinct parting ways with a young soul she has adopted into her heart.
Japan is shiver-inducingly beautiful. The mountains especially hold a mystery and grace to them that surpasses words and conscious thought.
Mount Koya is the home of Shingon, Japan's Esoteric sect of Buddhism, a creation of Kukai, one of the best loved history figures of Japan and arguably known as one of the fathers of modern Japan. He was even given a second name, Kobo Daishi, which translates into "The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching." And by modern, we mean within the last 1500 years or so. We stayed at a small temple lodging with the peaceful monks during the 1200 year anniversary of the founding of Koya, ate vegetarian cuisine better than most high-end restaurants, and attended Buddhist services.
We took trains to the base of Mt Koya and scrambled into a cable car just before it took off for the top of the mountain. Trees and greenery everywhere as far as the eye could see. The mountain was beyond gorgeous. We were so high above sea level that it even snowed when we arrived and scrambled again to reach our temple lodgings before dinner was to be served at 5:30pm sharp. We were definitely cutting it close and I was starting to panic slightly, but Boyd is wonderful about keeping cool and taking the lead while I collect myself and remember to breathe again. Luckily the monks are forgiving in their punctuality; we arrived just at 5:30 where a surprisingly tall monk in gray robes greeted us and asked us to take off our shoes and don some slippers for the remainder of our stay. Another monk, this time in comfy loose pants and a black t-shirt and tiny wire-rimmed glasses that gave him a smart owlish appearance, ushered us into the maze of passageways to the bathrooms, the dining areas, and our own little ryokan Japanese-style room complete with tatami mats, tiny tables, sitting rooms, and green tea setting for two. We donned our comfy yukata robes and slippers and headed to our private dining room.
The food was divine. We had been both teased and warned by Haruna and Yasuyuki about the vegetarian diets, known as shojin ryori, that are part and parcel of a stay in a Buddhist monk-run ryokan. They were worried we would half starve while we were there eating nothing but vegetables and rice. We had nothing to worry about. The meal, consisting of fifteen or so tiny dishes of different foods, heightened our experience with its masterful use of seasonings and flavors while staying true to the traditional and local foods served around Koya. We had about three different types of tofu per meal, both breakfast and dinner. Each meal was filling to the brim and satisfying down to our very toes.
Staying with the monks up on Koya was very peaceful and meditative. We fell asleep that night soon after dinner after our young monk apprentice moved our tea setting and replaced it with the traditional futons and blankets. Some people were worried about us sleeping on the floor so often during our trip, but we found some of our most restful sleep on those mountains on those tatami mats and futons. We awoke early to the sun rising and the chanting of monks. The morning services at Hoon-in consisted of two priests alternating chanting in a soothing, slow rhythm that felt as natural as breathing in and out. The monks allowed us to sit and listen as well as burn some incense and say a prayer if we wished to. It was a perfect way to begin the morning and reset after the previous day's exploration.
Throughout the temples of Koya, we experienced beautiful moments everywhere we went. Wandering through the numerous temples both small and large was a deeply moving experience. There was no way to truly keep track of each temple we saw beyond a few huge landmarks, such as the massive red pagoda at Garan, where we saw a monk give a tour and explanation of a temple to a group of Japanese tourists, mostly white-haired walking-stick-wielding retirees who were indulging in all of the sights they did not see when they were younger. There was, however, a young boy in his preteens who was gathering pine needles there. We later learned that there is a legend attached to the pine needles, describing the founding of Koyasan and how Kukai chose it as the home of Shingon Buddhism. We wandered further across the pathways to Okunoin Temple, a massive pathway to Kukai's mausoleum filled with thousands of gravestones and family memorials. The path is a popular one with tourist groups and guides wandering the tombstones, but we soaked in the silence of the trees and stones and moss that surrounded us on all sides for a very long walk. Something heavy and sacred sits there among those thousand-year-old stones and trees, and most of those on the path respected that weight. While visiting the numerous temples and kneeling at the various offering boxes, we also found out that we are not accustomed to sitting Japanese - style and the constant standing and sitting. It was well worth the aches and possible muscle strain, though! To ease our pains, Boyd and I enjoyed the delicious tradition known as onsen baths. Our little temple lodging at Hoon-in included access to their Japanese style bathing areas where you wash completely in the showers and then luxuriate in beautiful hot pools for as long as you can stand the sauna-like atmosphere. We made ample use of these baths every day we were up there and knew from the first bath that we were hooked. There is nothing like soaking in a massive tub of endless hot water after walking a good twelve to fifteen miles.
Overall, Koya was a wonderful and refreshing moment of peace during our hectic run around so many different cities. After the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and the emotional outpouring of Kyoto, it was amazing to sit on a mountaintop surrounded by so much quiet and serenity and simply be.
About a thousand years ago, Miyajima's residents built a wooden gate in the exact spot where the sun sets into the ocean. These gates are known today as the Otorii gates, the gates that float in the water. This spot is known as one of the prettiest views of Japan as well as one of the best places to see deer roaming freely across the grounds. We would narrowly miss Miyajima's big firework festival, which is in August, but we were excited for the natural beauty.
We headed for Miyajima for an overnight stay via a little ferry service. Ferries are far and few between in the States, so we were both thrilled at the opportunity to relax on a massive floating car park towards our evening's destination. Our ferry was sparsely peopled; very few people stay on the island overnight. Most come for a day trip at most. Our goal was to beat the crowds by going in the evening, watch the sunset, and enjoy the quiet city walks by night.
The lady at the tourist center said we were lucky to come on a clear day; she was completely right. We were able to watch the sun set between the edges of the Otorii and saw some swimmers play around along the beachfront. Interestingly, at low tide, you can walk through the Otorii because the water has received so drastically. While walking towards the red gates, we met a little old man with a tiny Yorkie who was waiting for another little old man with a Yorkie. They met every evening to allow their little puppies a play date. Our hearts melted all over the place for that one.
We grew hungry after sunset. The lovely info center lady gave us a hand-drawn map of late night places to eat in Miyajima because everyone goes above and beyond in Japan. We found one of the late-night bars and gorged ourselves on local oysters and eels. I don't know when I've eaten so many delicious and tasty seafood dishes in a very long time. It was heaven on a bed of rice.
While strolling that evening, it struck me how tame the deer are on the island. They are much like the deer of Nara, only smaller and a little more nosy. One tried to eat my shirt while we were watching the sunset; luckily it did not succeed! As these thoughts were crossing my brain, we saw a beautiful mother deer feeding and cleaning its baby. It was one of the most beautiful moments we have ever witnessed and sums up the beautiful quiet moments we had in Miyajima. It was just for one evening, but it was beautiful.
We left Miajima at dawn, just as the local shops were opening up. We saw women and men waving to each from across the street as they swept the front stoops of their stores. We wanted to try the local sweet, a maple leaf shaped pancake with red bean paste inside, and a store keeper was kind enough to sell us one before the shop officially opened. The sweets are prepared on a small circular assembly line about as big as a piano. As clumps of red bean paste come around on the assembly line, a man pulls a lever to release the batter onto the paste, and then he pulls another lever to bring a press down to steam the batter into pancakes. It was like a waffle iron that could churn out a dozen tiny waffles per minute.
The store keeper got one of the sweets from the first batch of the day, and we ate it hot in the front of the store. Normally, they are served cooler because they are made in bulk at the beginning of the day and cool off after the first minute or two and maybor mah not be kept on a warmer. We got very lucky. The best way that I can describe it is driving by the Krispy Kreme when the light comes on, stopping to get a donut, and getting to lick the batter on top of that.
We arrived in Hiroshima by mid-morning and traveled mainly by streetcar. Visiting Hiroshima, which is now a thriving metropolis, has been an emotional experience. Katelyn and I have been thinking and talking about war, culture, and moral decisions. You have to when you are in Hiroshima. We paid our respects at the different memorials around the Peace Park. The Children's Peace Memorial with the paper cranes was the most touching moment. There were a few small school children presenting their thousand paper cranes to the memorial, and it was very emotional. A group of older students sang a beautiful song, and Katelyn wept. While this is not the same day or the same group of students, this video captures the emotion we felt well.
The museum was also a solemn event, but very worthwhile. Its purpose was to show the horrors of war in order to inspire a future of peace. There were large groups of students touring the museum, and it was fascinating to see the mixture of childhood's youth with images of horror. After the Peace Park and the museum, we spent a few hours sitting, staring off into space, and reflecting. We were emotionally exhausted. We started at a park bench and eventually migrated to a small cafe. We thought about leaving the city for a bit to clear our heads but instead decided to see if the opera next to our hotel had tickets for the evening. There was nothing showing, but the walking brought us back to ourselves. Instead of seeing the opera, we drank sake and had delicious food.
There were a couple of truly lovely moments in Hiroshima, but our favorite was when we stopped at the Hiroshima Bank to exchange dollars for yen. The women at the bank explained that they couldn't do exchanges but that the Hiroshima Post Office could. They showed us a map of how to get to the Post Office, demonstrated that it was about three blocks away, and photocopied the map just in case we got lost.We were so impressed by the women's thorough kindness.
We began walking in what we assumed was the right direction. We had walked over a bridge, commented on some cute little shops and restaurants, and crossed several streets when we heard the rapid clacking of high heels. Two different women from the bank were running after us; they realized that we had walked in the wrong direction and wanted to point us in the right direction. They had sprinted after us in their business suits for probably two and a half blocks. We were awestruck. After they pointed us in the right direction, we doubled back to the post office with two bottles of water. The women had been out of breath after all that running. Can you imagine that happening in the United States? We felt embarrassed, but our warmth for the women was stronger. What an amazing country!
Goodbye city, and hello small seaside town! Today, we took a day trip to the sleepy coastal port of Tomonoura, which has a small population but a big role in anime movie history. It was the inspiration for the movie Ponyo, which we adore.
Most of the boats here were small two to five man fishing vessels, and as a rule of thumb, they were not docked or kept on lifts. Instead, they were either tied to posts near the shore or bobbed, anchored and unmanned, in the shallow water offshore, dotting the coastline. I had a hard time telling if the boats were old and well-cared for or if they were a decade from dilapidation, which I think helped make it feel like an authentic fishing village. Either way, the boats were beautiful.
We walked around the docks, visited the old lighthouse, saw castle ruins, and wandered through gorgeous side streets. We often stopped to watch the falcons soar. At one point, we counted as many as six in the sky! We loved hearing them screech, but we felt a little more conflicted when we noticed how the smaller birds avoided them. Each falcon took an opportunity to perch on either a boat or the post it was tied to. It was an amazing sight.
For lunch, we had to walk a mile or two before we found anything open, even at noon. We eventually stumbled into a small restaurant that would be better described as a kind, round woman's kitchen.
When we entered, there was a group of three elderly Japanese tourists from Tokyo who were eating their meals around a dinner table. The center of table had been converted to an open hibachi-like grill, so they were eating the food where it was cooked. Having already finished, the fourth tourist had moved to what was once the living room. There were several chairs for lounging, and he sat, watching television, blotting his forehead with a handkerchief, and explaining through hand gestures that it was too hot near the grill.
The kitchen was too crowded for us to join, so we sat with him until the other guests finished. Slowly, everyone moved to the living room, and soon everyone was blotting their foreheads, including us. We had bought a traditional Japanese handkerchief in a Uji shop during our downtime on a particularly rainy afternoon, and it certainly came in handy. They taught us the word for "handkerchief" in Japanese, and we watched a Japanese version of the "Today Show" until the grill was ready.
We ate the best okonamiyaki we have had in Japan at that small table, and the cook was adorable. At the end of the meal, she gave Katelyn a beautiful fan as a gift, and when we left, we even were able to give her a light hug, which has been a rare experience in Japan.
After lunch, we took a five minute boat ride to a series of small islands off the coast of Tomonoura for an afternoon hike. On the main island Sensuijima, the hiking path hugged a cliffside facing the ocean, and the rocks were gorgeous. Katelyn said the scenery reminded her of Maine. There were even crabs scurrying across the path, which definitely fits my mental image of Maine.
The island was remote, and its interior was wooded, so the path offered us a range of delights. We even came across a sandy beach cove with a small collection of kayaks as well as a permanent camp site with a dozen tents for rent. Sadly, we had time for neither the kayaks or the tents because rain clouds were looming as we finished the hike.
After Tomonaura, we moved on to Fukuoka, a big city where we stayed the night. The city is famed for being the friendliest city in Japan, but we never could have expected how we were greeted. It turns out that we arrived on the perfect night. July 1st was some sort of festival, where hundreds of men of all ages and shapes marched around the streets of Fukuoka dressed in robes and what we can only describe as sumo wrestler underwear. There were a lot of bare butt cheeks.
For the whole night, we still weren't exactly sure what the festival was about. We did not have internet access, and all we could glean from the locals was that it might have something to do with "ginger," which later proved to be a red herring. Still, we were sure of a few facts. First, different men were in small groups of about thirty, although we did see one group nearing one hundred in the distance. Second, each group left a temple to circle the city and then return. Third, the small crowds that had gathered seemed to be supporting their own local group of men. Otherwise, we kind of liked the mystery of not knowing.
The next morning, our Fukuoka hotel had a few televisions in the lobby that were showing the Japan vs. England World Cup game. With the time difference, we were able to watch an 8pm game live at 7am over coffee and the bland curry the hotel served. The own goal in stoppage time was embarrassing and hurt our hearts, but we were happy to see Japan move on, because selfishly, we wanted the opportunity to watch a Japan vs. United States game in Tokyo; however, celebration didn't seem right.
We still haven't figured out the best place to watch a soccer game in Japan. We have not found a sports bar, but then again, we have not been looking. There have been some pubs, but again, we haven't been eager to try them. We have seen promotions for local Japanese soccer teams, and there have been some televisions showing local games, but we have not noticed a single advertisement for the World Cup, whether it be television commercial, poster, or billboard. There have been no shirts or jerseys either. My assumption is that supporting the national team is less of a public affair and more of a private one, but then again, everyone could be talking about the World Cup, and I just don't understand a word of it!
We had already woken up later than any other day of the trip, and I spent far too long indulging in writing a work email after the game, so it was probably noon before we left Fukuoka. We had to amend our travel plans, but luckily, all worked out well.
After a two hour shinkansen ride, we arrived at Kagoshima, where we waited for the hydrofoil, a giant ferry designed for fast travel. We knew very little about hydrofoils, so we stopped in a little cafe for long enough to get internet and information. Hydrofoils have been used across the world and are famous for traveling slightly above the water rather than in it. The boats are lifted and glide on top of the water to avoid water resistance. Basically, hydrofoils are boats on skiis. We could not believe that a boat that size could be on skiis. It sat around a hundred and fifty.
While on the internet, we also looked up the festival in Fukuoka. We had seen the opening ceremonies for a two week competition, Yamakasa, where different groups of men build huge, heavy parade floats. At the culmination of the festival, the group of men surround their float, lift it, and carry it in an all out float race. The group that races their float to the temple the fastest wins. What we saw was the reveal of the teams. Each group of men was making the rounds of the city and learning the course. Eventually, each group will take several practice so they learn how to best carry their float, and then on the 15th of July, they race. Sadly, we will not be in the country then, but we were so lucky to be in Fukuoka during the opening ceremony.
Also, while on the hydrofoil, we had another breakthrough. We saw our first mention of the World Cup! There was a television showing the local news and there was a substantial news spot showing the win over England. I was amazed at how it showed not only the highlights of the Japanese team but also its lowest moments. The news then previewed the match up with the United States, and again, the news reviewed the lowest moments in Japan's Olympic loss to the United States in 2012. The news briefly showed the Japan's World Cup victory over the United States in 2011, but it more substantially analyzed the loss. The broadcast left me wondering just how the underdog mentality works in Japan. That and how on earth we could be spending two hours on a boat on skiis!
After the thrilling hydrofoil ride complete with distant misty islands, we arrived at Yakushima's Anbo Port. We had originally planned on staying at a little minshuku (Japanese style beach hotel) in a neighboring town, but we decided to stay in Anbo, a port city closer to the sights we wanted to see. We arrived around 6:30 in the evening, far too late to do any sightseeing but just in time for dinner. While on the hydrofoil, we found a place to stay in Anbo that was a little settlement of cottages with adorable names and even more adorable hammocks.
The owner greeted us as our taxi pulled up in front of his office. He shook our hands and had umbrellas ready just in case we had forgotten ours (Yakushima is one of the most rainy places in Japan, raining almost every day). With a sense of delight and pride, he toured us around his complex, showing us his office hours, the snack hall, and our own little cottage. And it truly was a tiny cottage, complete with our own tiny porch, tiny hammock, and tiny bathroom. In the living room, there were Japanese-style futons for sleeping. As we chatted, we learned that he built these cottages himself after years of being a Tokyo IT expert. It took 6 years, but he has finally completed them and now exuberantly shows them off to his guests. And they are true works of art. Stained glass windows and beautifully finished wood cover every inch of the cottage.
We exchanged our own plans with him, telling him it is our honeymoon, to which he became even more exuberant and told us he would take us to his favorite restaurant and have them cook us dinner. He drove us to dinner (after a quick stop to the grocery store in case we needed any snacks--we ended up buying him beer and his wife flowers instead), where we feasted on sashimi caught that day by the restaurant owners and huge steaming bowls of rice and ice-cold tofu. Boyd had an adventure eating grilled flying fish still on the bone. I am proud to say that he ate the whole fish without swallowing any of its tiny hair-thin bones, and with chopsticks to boot.
It began to rain heavily, so the restaurant owner called the cottage owner before we could insist on a taxi. He picked us up just as we were meeting another group of diners who happened to be staying at the cottage next to ours and had offered us a ride in their car. During our ride back, we learned he has two little girls, ages 4 years old and 5 months, which had us melting immediately. Also, we learned his wife had not been excited to move from Tokyo back to his little home town in Yakushima (population 1200, outnumbered by the deer and monkeys by about 300%), but that she was adjusting as can be expected. We hoped the flowers would help in some small way.
We entered our little cottage to candlelight and cake. The owner had set up a quick late-night romantic dessert in honor of our honeymoon. He beamed with pride as he graciously excused the smallness of the cake and rushed appearance of the token of thanks for choosing his place as part of our honeymoon. We of course knew it to be the grandest of kindnesses. Once we said goodbye to our adorable host, we dug into the fruit-laden cheesecake with joy. We turned off the LED candles with the press of a button, pulled out our futons, and fell into lovely restful sleeps.
The next morning was rainy, as expected. We found ourselves showering to the tune of rain hitting our cottage's roof with abandon. Our host checked on us around 8am, just as we were about to knock on his office to ask for directions for the rest of the day. We were on a tight schedule, but he had thought on it through the night and had planned out the best route for us and our plans. He explained the bus system to us and had printed copies of the bus times in English and circled which stops and times we needed to pay attention to. He even ordered us a taxi up into the mountains to help us save time. For posterity, he took a photo of us in front of our cabin, and soon he bundled us into our taxi and waved vigorous goodbyes.
We were off on our adventure then, riding a taxi through insane mountain turns and beautiful ridges and ravines. We must have seen at least 5 waterfalls on the way up and enough misty mountain views to make any hiker jealous. Boyd could not help but film the taxi ride itself, which was thrilling, because we twisted along a one lane road that had two way traffic, and the driver kept an even 40 kph, which felt daringly fast for the terrain.
We hit Yaku-sugi Land, our destination for the day. Luckily everything was in English as well as in Japanese, and we headed off on the 80 minute hike in order to catch the next bus two hours later.
I have seen nothing, absolutely nothing like this place. It is completely untouched, a world-renowned UNESCO World Heritage site that is everything green and mysterious and peaceful. The mountains are huge, the trees are unending, and the moss and lichen are stretched as far as the eye can see. Every inch of the place is green, all in different hues and textures and patterns. It makes you feel small and alive at the same time. It is untamed and powerful yet so serene and calm.
And the rivers and streams and waterfalls. They are beyond words. At one moment contemplative and at the next tumultuous and death-defying, they are awe-inspiring and wholly intoxicating. When we crossed our first bridge over the teeming river, we stood in the middle of its slatted timbers and could not get over the sense of smallness and infiniteness we felt as the rapids flew underneath our feet. It was incredible.
The further we traveled into the forrest, the more rough the terrain became. Slick with constant rain, the park's designers cleverly carved away certain parts of the woods and integrated steps from fallen tree trunks and already standing rocks. Nevertheless, it was more than I had expected. Boyd is definitely the adventurous hiker of the two of us. We found out during this hike that I will not be climbing Mt Fuji to its fullest height.
Unfortunately during our beautiful trek, Boyd stepped on a step that had a screw pointing upwards. (We took a picture of it and the signpost nearby to send to send to the information people so they can remove it; that's the last thing you'd expect hiking in the woods!) The medical kit we packed definitely came in use. It pierced his foot superficially, but it is tender still and will not withstand a hike up Mt Fuji very well. And no worries! Boyd is up to date on all of his shots, including tetanus.
Regardless our injuries and ineptitudes, we enjoyed our beautiful trek into the greenery of Yakushima. We bussed our way back down to port, ate lunch at a tiny takeaway place where they kindly attempted to give us directions to the hydrofoil, and finally made our way back. We are now on the bullet train to Himeji, where we will switch from this leg of the journey to a sleeper train for the rest of our journey to Tokyo.
The past 48 hours have flourished with travel. For our trip to Yakisugi and back, we spent six hours on shinkansen, traveled four hours by hydrofoil, took two hours of buses, and survived forty minutes of a particularly bumpy taxi ride. Phew! That was a lot to even write. These figures include riding trains almost 12 hours straight to get from Yakushima to Tokyo, not including the hydrofoil to get from Yakushima to Kagoshima, which made it 14 hours straight. Luckily, the four hours of train riding was a gorgeous countryside trip on a bullet train, and the other eight were spent on a sleeper express, so we were able to sleep through much of it.
Train riding in Japan is both everyday ritual and a special treat. Sleeper cars are rare; there are only three lines a night that cross the country in segments. We took one of the more reasonable segments, a trip from Himeji to Tokyo via tiny little single compartment cabins, complete with mirror, hangers, sleeping robe, slippers, individual air conditioning, and built in alarm clock. It cost about the same as a hotel room at any Best Western. It seemed to be a big hit with our fellow passengers, mostly sleepy commuters in business suits who were still excited about a sleeper car, going so far as to video the arrival of the train into the station.
Boyd and I bundled into our sleeping robes and slippers and sat on my little single pallet to enjoy the best part of all, the massive curved window in the compartment. Such a monstrously huge window, taking up the entire left side of the compartment, allowed us to watch the cities and countryside slide past us with rambling ease and surprising intimacy. We watched last callers slip out of bars into the streets as cats slept under doorsteps and along concrete railings. It was a beautiful kaleidoscope as we passed by in the wee hours of the morning, and we relished the sleeplessness.
We registered about 4 hours of sleep in total that night, but it was worth it. Unfortunately in our enthusiasm, we missed the fact that there were showers on the train. Showerless after our long hike in Yakushima and with another hike up Mt Fuji ahead, we had no idea upon what we were about to embark.
The train to Mt. Fuji was themed like an amusement park that aimed to capture the spirit of the "great outdoors." The inside of the train car was painted in rustic browns with an occasional splash of green, a color palette oddly similar to Smokey the Bear ads. Signs on the walls were wooden placards with carved lettering, seats looked vaguely like rocks and logs, and restless children found refuge in a wooden playpen designed to look like the stump of a cut down tree. The train even had a guide in a tan uniform and a neckerchief who had an information desk in front of wooden shelves that displayed mountain-themed trinkets for sale. The place made me think, wasn't Davy Crocket once a big thing? Didn't Disney once do this "great outdoors" amusement park?
In the middle of the section for standing passengers, there was a small bamboo tree tied to a wooden post. The tree had several slips of paper tied to its branches, and on each slip of paper was a wish handwritten by a passenger in either Japanese, English, or a different native language. It turned out we were riding to Mt. Fuji two days before the Star Festival, a Japanese tradition with a romantic story behind it about stars who fell in love, were separated by the gods, and only cross in the sky once a year. The night they cross is a time for making wishes. When the guide offered the train to choose a sheet of paper and attach a prayer, Katelyn and I were the first. We chose a bright color piece of paper and wrote a message wishing luck and health for our host family from Nagaokakyo. Then, we took a picture to send to Haruna, Yasuyuki, Aoba, and Hakuto.
If I were being completely honest about Mt. Fuji, I would confess that the "great outdoors" train car and the tree with wishes was one of the better memories we made. Don't get me wrong. We're glad we climbed Mt. Fuji. It was completely worthwhile and an experience we wouldn't trade. However, there were a couple of complicating factors that kept us from enjoying it completely.
First, the weather was disappointing. There was a cold rain and a bitter hail that day, so the view from the mountain was obscured, and we had to bundle up to keep from getting sick. Before leaving Tokyo, we had the foresight to visit a one hundred yen shop, which is the equivalent of a dollar store, and find cheap cotton hoodies to keep us warm as well as ponchos and waterproof rain suits to keep us dry. At the mountain itself, we decided we should get some gloves and upgrade my poncho to a super high quality rain slicker because I would be carrying Katelyn's purse, which contained our passports and such. We wrapped the passports in a plastic bag, wrapped the entire purse in another plastic bag, and bundled it under my hoodie and rain slicker. Just to overkill our preparation, we also got two headbands with the emblem of the rising sun. I tied mine around my mouth to keep my lips from getting chapped, and Katelyn wore hers around her forehead to keep the hood of her rain suit in place.
Second, neither one of us was in perfect condition. I had stepped on an upturned screw that was on a wooden step the day before, and it had gone through the sole of my left shoe and into the fleshy middle of my foot. Thankfully, the screw did not hit a point with more muscle. Katelyn had been nursing a sore foot and a hurt shoulder for a few days and was in loads of pain when she put any pressure on her left shoulder. It was getting bad enough where wearing her purse hurt.
With this in mind, we decided to box ourselves into a one day experience. Originally, we had planned to hike up the majority of the mountain during the day, spend the night at an inn near the summit, and watch the sunrise from a spot on the summit. Well, as romantic as the original plan was, we knew that it was a bad idea for us; however, we had a feeling that once we started climbing, our adventurous spirits and stubborn personalities might take over. No matter how much we knew we should limit our climb, we would keep going to the summit. To prevent this, we purposefully stored our backpacks at Tokyo Station in a one day coin locker instead of in an overnight locker at the base of Mt. Fuji. That way, we would hedge against getting carried away and force ourselves to leave the mountain at a decent hour.
Third, there were a lot of tourists at Mt. Fuji. Now, granted, we too were tourists; however, we had just reveled in the relatively untouched beauty of the overgrown trails of Yakushima and the authentically peaceful center of Esoteric Buddhism at Mt. Koya, so Mt. Fuji was a tough transition. We knew it would be different, but we did not anticipate that the first part of the trail would be flat, covered with pebbles to keep you from slipping, and wide enough for cars to drive side by side. Granted, the design for the trail was brilliant because it allowed anyone to walk for a bit and then got progressively harder until it became a truly tough slog. Still, the trail was made for such a high turnaround that it made us wonder if climbing the "highest" mountain was better than climbing shorter, more beautiful ones.
When we began our climb, the sky began hailing. The small pebbles of ice bounced off our heads, so we used umbrellas for a bit. The level walk lasted for what seemed like maybe half a mile as the path slowly transitioned into a steep hill. Here, Katelyn and I conditioned ourselves to stopping for short hydration breaks, and during these breaks of ours, the hail was more steadfast and continued.
Eventually, the path became steeper, but instead of progressing straightforward, which would have been too steep an angle, the path zigzaged back and forth the same way a handicap access ramp might if the building did not have enough space to make a single long ramp. This part of the path was tough because our feet were heavy and our steps were slow, but we were emboldened and alive. Climbing the mountain felt great, and we were being carried away by that spirit we knew would get the better of us. Already, we had climbed far further than we had intended.
Soon, we met a group of three travelers who were doing that camera dance that all tourists know well, where one person takes a picture of the other two, and then the taker rotates into the picture while another person rotates out to take the next one. We stopped and offered to take a picture of all three together, and then they took a picture of us. From watching them, we learned how we could hold our arms above our heads to make one giant heart.
Through the course of the next twenty minutes, we crossed paths with these hikers. Eventually, we were chatting and formed hiking buddies. The youngest of the three travelers was an effervescent girl visiting from Hong Kong who spoke great English and was quick to laugh. The other two hikers were a Japanese couple who seemed old enough to be the other girl's aunt and uncle, but she had referred to them as her friends. The husband had a sure foot and resembled a mountain goat, while the wife was much more hesitant and worn out. The girl taught us the Japanese word for cold, as well as a few other words, and she said that I had great pronunciation, which Katelyn and I knew was just flattery, because I struggle with phrases as simple as "you're welcome." She also tried to talk us into staying at the inn near the summit, and we considered it, even though there were a few hours left in the climb.
The rocks then became more thickly stacked on top of each other, and the path all but disappeared. We had reached the part of the mountain that involved finding a foothold with each step and scurrying over big rocks. As Mt. Fuji became more difficult, we continued, passing the 6th and 7th Stations. At the beginning of the hike, we kicked around the idea of going no further than the 5th Station, but here we were, pushing forward, as we expected. We had almost made it to the 8th Station before we decided to turn around. The view from where we stopped was expansive and beautiful, and even through the fog and mist, we could see farmland below. After taking in the view, we said goodbye to our travel partners and headed back down the mountain.
We stopped at a rest house around the 7th Station to peel off our rain suits and slickers and warm our numb hands with warm cups of tea. Despite the gloves, which had quickly become soaked, our fingers were strange colors and didn't have the most responsive feeling. We stunk, and it was nice to rest, even if the place smelled of travelers, with our help of course.
After reviving our energies with some seaweed udon and pork guts soup, we continued down the mountain. The descent was not as strenuous, but we were more aware that the trail had places to fall. Katelyn had a few moments of panic when coming down particularly rocky slopes that were difficult, and I was unspeakably proud to see her battle through the tough spots. She's one amazing soul.
I gave Katelyn a ridiculous pep talk that must have been more irritating than helpful. In the speech, I tried to repeat some climbing passages I had read in Big Sur as a teen about how you can't fall off a mountain, so you shouldn't be afraid. As a teen, I had probably taken that as a mantra of invincibility and action, but then again, I have never been a reckless sort. Being slightly older now, I surely have a different understanding of the phrase than I might have had as a teen.
My current thoughts are that placing your feet while climbing rocky paths is not about finding the perfect place to step. In fact, if you try to find the perfect place to step, you will over-analyze and freeze your intuition. To stop your progress, you will lock your knees, making them sore. To be more "cautious," you will over correct any wobble, causing yourself to loose your confidence, momentum, and perhaps balance.
Instead, the goal is to continue with the next logical step decisively and not take undue risk, which includes the risk of seeking perfection. Your step does not have to be perfect, but it needs to be on a steady rock close enough to reach gracefully. If the rock doesn't budge, then it will serve. If you concentrate on what will work, then you are making sensible, sure decisions and will not fall. Even if the rock wobbles, then guess what? There's another one within a step, and you will be on that next rock if you trust your next step. I momentarily loose my balance all the time on a hike, but I have never really fallen because I have always been able to use the imperfect but sound step to get to the next sound step.
As an uncoordinated person with little to no balance, I will admit that it is convenient for me to believe that hiking has little to do with balance. That is what I am arguing, though. Balance is reserved for walking perfectly in a straight line across a balance beam. Hiking, however, is about taking sure and safe small steps that create zigzagging patterns based on trusting the imperfect ways your foot intuitively contours to strangely shaped rocks. Well, that's at least what uncoordinated me wants to believe.
The sun set on us just as we reached the base of the mountain. We had spent about six hours hiking Mt. Fuji and were so exhausted that we were a mess. We wound up piling onto a bus with a bunch of American and Australian tourists and took an extremely long ride to the train station, where we grabbed a train back to Tokyo Station. Because we had not found the showers on the overnight express the night before, it had been about 36 hours since we had had a shower. We were revolting, and I desperately wanted a shower and a change of clothes. Strangely, however, the urge was less because of my smell and more because of my desire to separate myself from the tourist boys that were on that bus and train. I will try not to focus on it for long, because it saddened me, but the boys were acting like fools with no decorum and representing America and Australia horribly.
I thought they would calm down after the bus, but once we got into the more public space of they were worse. While Katelyn and I politely walked up to the JR ticket lady, showed her our passes and got our ticket, which is protocol, they ran around trying different machines, going through the gates unauthorized, and yelling variously to her, "Hey, is that my train??" and pointing to the idling train when they were inevitably confused. Once on the train, they sprawled across several seats, taking up as much room as possible and talking loudly to each other about inappropriate subjects with plenty of cursing. It didn't make any sense to me. Being in a Japanese train is an immaculate experience that is highly regimented. Everyone we have seen sits and stands the same way, and everyone speaks at a whisper if they speak at all. It all felt so wrong.
When we got onto our next train, the situation only escalated as a crowd of about a dozen American boys got on the train drunk with open drinks in their hands. They were actually carrying red solo cups with mixed drinks in them. I had never seen anyone even openly drink a bottle of water or soda on a crowded train. Normally, people in Tokyo would subtly take a sip if at all. Here, however, were a bunch of guys extremely drunk, stumbling, swaying, and cursing loudly. They were guzzling their drinks and turning my stomach. Katelyn and I were both irritable after the long day, and it broke our hearts to see Japanese train culture so disrespected and our country so poorly represented. Mainly, though, it taught how old and crotchety we are inside. These young hoodlums were messing up our peace and quiet!
After a long train ride full of discomfort, we returned to a Tokyo hotel, sore and filthy. After one of the best showers of my life, we threw away our cheap hoodies and salvaged the rest of our clothes. Then, we fell into a rock hard sleep, and trust me, after Mt. Fuji, we knew just how hard rocks can be.
The next morning was an early one. We got about three hours of sleep in Tokyo and were immediately on the move to the airport. We assumed we would need to be at the airport at least two hours in advance of the flight, so erred on the side of caution and gave ourselves three hours to get there. Interesting new fact: Japanese airports suggest you go through security 15 minutes before your domestic flight. It takes no time to get your ticket and no time to get on the flight. It was extremely impressive, and it gave us time to eat a leisurely breakfast and buy some snacks and nap a little. The flight was pleasant and efficient, just as everything here in Japan has been. I don't remember much of the flight beyond falling asleep and waking up again in a beautiful new scenescape.
Hokkaido is considered the last frontier of Japan, the least populated and most wild part of the country. From what we witnessed on the train ride from Sapporo to Asahikawa, it is the most beautiful farmland we have ever seen, and the fields set upon the backdrop of mountains covered in fog and clouds.
We stopped briefly in Asahikawa to drop off our bags and were immediately on our way to Furano, land of the lavender fields and bellybutton dances. Before you start imagining that we saw belly dancing, let me explain. Furano is smack dab in the middle of Hokkaido and is known as the "bellybutton of Hokkaido." They take great pride in this title and have hosting a "Belly Button Festival," where residents dress up in hobgoblin outfits depicting entire faces painted on stomachs for ages.
We spent the hour train ride once again gaping out the window and gasping at the simplistic beauty of the countryside, as well as observing the interactions of our fellow train-riders.
We stopped in Furano to visit the fields of flowers, but we found mostly tourist information centers. These people working at the information centers are saints, trying to negotiate different languages and decipher what the tourist actually wants when they say they want to see some flowers. The woman who helped us that day was particularly helpful, giving us maps and guides and bus schedules. We made our way to Farm Tomita on her suggestion.
Farm Tomita specializes in growing lavender, and just like Furano itself, it celebrates lavender in all its forms. We stuffed ourselves on lavender ice cream, lavender honey pudding, and lavender roll cakes while sitting lazily in the sun between rows and rows of lavender. Everything is purple here. The shirts and benches and even the motor scooters the workers use to transport supplies are purple, and at least half of the visitors were wearing purple, especially the children. Parents take their children everywhere in Japan, especially mothers who have children under the public school age. We saw so many little children running along the paths between flower beds, laughing as their parents ran after them.
After stuffing our eyes with flower scenes and our mouths with lavender-flavored everything, we meandered to a neighboring cantaloupe ("melon") farm that served cantaloupe flavored milkshakes, sold half-melons with cantaloupe ice cream, and permanently flew a large, durable balloon shaped like a melon. Then, we wandered into the public park where we watched a dad and his four kids splash in the water area while some other neighborhood children played a game of baseball. It was enchanting. Even the public park had a beautiful flower garden and some beautiful observation decks from which to see the tiny town. We wandered our way back into town and chatted with a world traveler from Bangkok for a while before his wife dragged him away, apologizing for his unending chatter in our ears. He was a character for sure.
Back in Asahikawa, we ate one very sad dinner at a restaurant that looked great on the outside but ended up being terribly sub-par on the inside. To make up for the disappointment of that dinner, we ate a second dinner. This time, we had delicious teppanyaki and yakitori (grilled and fried foods on sticks) at a local bar. We feasted on ginger wrapped in pork, pork tongue, and chicken wing. The bar food was much better. Anyway, what's better than fried foods on sticks?
The next day we slept in a little later than expected. Rushing to the bus station was painful but definitely worth it. We spent the next five or six hours having one of the most astounding moments of our lives.
We traveled to Daisetzusan, one of the biggest national parks in Japan, spanning an area larger than some prefectures in the same land mass. Nothing but untouched land as far as they eye can see. In the heart of this park is Mt. Asahidake, one of the most beautiful mountains as well as a beautiful hike. We traveled up the cable car rope way and hiked around the rim of the mountainous volcano, marveling at the patches of snow amidst fields of flowers and tiny springs flowing into large ice lakes.
In the winter, Mt. Asahidake, an active volcano, is snow-covered and used for skiing, but each season is prized as a tourist destination for a different reason. According to the pictures we saw hanging up in the main building, fall is famous for radiant leaves, and the the spring and summer make for hikes filled with flora and fauna. National Geographic has a great series of photos that capture the range of beauty on Asahidake, but fair warning, one of Daisetzusan's strangest attractions, an igloo bar, is covered at the end of the series.
Never has a place moved us so much as Mt. Asahidake. If I could create a heaven for myself, it would be this mountain with its gentle slopes of green and flowers and craggy cliffs and rock formations and gentle breezes and cool winds. Everything was peaceful and quiet and calm. You could see out beyond the horizon, feeling as if the world were endless and you were on the edge of that endlessness, the edge of the world from its upper edge.
The path was narrow with gentle curves, as if God had dipped his pinky in the ground and lazily dragged his almighty little finger in a winding pattern, just as a child draws squiggles on a foggy mirror. The paths were less paths and more small furrows in a foreign landscape, small craggy rocks and surfaces pointed out as easy stepping ground for the itinerant traveler. We walked through streams and patches of ice, sloshing our way across the expansive space.
We were joined in our reverie by little retired couples finally making it up the gentle slopes. A small romantic part of me hopes that his has been one of their dreams for years and years and after so many decades of hard work and saving, they have reached a goal post, a road marker in their life they have been looking towards for so long. They have found their peace, their never ending repose, opening a new era of awe and excitement and joy in their lives.
All of these infinite thoughts floated through me while we walked and thousands more. It is a place where you cannot help but reflect and think the big thoughts as well as the small observations. The beauty of the mountain itself felt like a stolen moment because higher on the mountain there were volcanic fissures and the nearby streams smelt vaguely of sulfur. It reminded us all the tumultuous underground activity that had created the peace above.
We soaked it all in and took these treasures with us back down the mountain as we bathed in a beautiful rocky outdoor onsen nearby. We took these back down the bus and the train, held these thoughts and ideas close for a while as the road slipped by and time was slowly winding itself down on our travels.
There were some mishaps along the way to Dewa Sanzan. We had plane tickets arranged from Asahikawa to Tokyo, giving us access to shinkansen and limited express trains the rest of the way to Dewa Sanzan. Unfortunately, our early morning flight was cancelled out of the blue the evening before with no recourse besides out-of-business-hours phone numbers.
Panic settled in. We asked the front desk of our hotel what to do, and the amazing lady there assuaged our panic and told is we can get a flight no problem. She also gave us a recommendation for an amazing local bar/pub (called izakaya in Japan) to get some good hairy crab. We ate our worries away with yakitori sticks of unknown food and plates of sushi and huge hot pots of crab and noodles. And some beer because Sapporo was just a short train ride away.
Boyd and I laughed at the antics of two friends eating at the bar beside us, and Boyd gifted them some sake just as the last patrons were leaving for the night. This turned into a long laughing conversation about the women's World Cup and honeymoons and the best places to go in Hokkaido. They were impressed by Boyd's ability to shoot the whole glass of sake and joined him in the American ritual of downing a glass of alcohol in one gulp on the second round. I felt bad for any wives or girlfriends they might have gone home to. We said goodnight, apologized for staying so late, and slept for far too long. We ate an early lunch and headed to the airport.
Those poor airport people didn't know what to do with us. They were polite and apologetic the entire time as they directed us to the same numbers we had called before and as they watched us get back in line to speak with them again. Finally a manager came around and changed our flight to a plane leaving in 30 minutes. Relieved and apologetic, we took our tickets and almost ran to the plane to make sure we were there on time.
Once safely in Tokyo, we took the next train to Niigata, one of the train transfer cities to our final destination. It was late when we got in, so we decided we had tortured our bodies enough with traveling and would spend the night there. We grabbed a hotel and a bite to eat and slept like the dead for a good long time.
The next morning, we rose early and caught to train to Tsuruoka, our last train stop before the bus ride to Dewa Sanzan. The countryside flew past us, and we arrived at Tsuruoka tired but glad to finally be close to our last big destination of the trip. The tourist information woman was exceedingly friendly and gave us parting gifts as we grabbed our maps and tried to navigate the bus.
We probably should have paid more attention to where we were going and how long we rode, but we got off the bus a little earlier than planned. We wanted arrive at the base of Mt. Haguro and climb the 2446 cedar-lined stone stairs up to out lodgings that evening with the monks. Instead, we wandered a few rice fields and stepped into a charming little town which, unfortunately, was not on any of our maps.
More panic. At least on my part. Boyd kept his head, and we started up the GPS and attempted to find where we were and where we needed to go. Little was marked, even on Google, so we wandered in the general direction of the big mountains and the police box. Our bags were heavy, the midday sun was getting hot, rain was on the way, and I was cranky.
We stopped for directions at a barber shop, a tiny little spot with the classic Western red and blue pole. We asked for directions while holding out our maps, and the barber and his client immediately started discussing the map and where we were. The barber even grabbed his car keys and was about to drive us to the mountain himself when we immediately back pedaled our desires and attempted to explain that the crazy backpacking Americans just wanted to walk to the base to climb the 2446 steps.
His wife, a tiny powerhouse of a woman complete with apron and reading glasses and open face, entered the language barrier melee. She got us straightened out. We were going the right direction. Just follow the road for a bit, take a left at the light and immediate right and we would be almost there.
Many thanks later, we were back on our way, sustained for the moment knowing what direction to take. We stopped by a little food stand and ate something delicious and on a stick from a tiny old woman and her daughter (everything is tiny in Japan). And we were off into the gorgeous tree-lined path of murderously numerous steps. The cedar trees, which ranged from 650 to 1000 years old, were high, but the stone steps, which numbered over 2,000, were higher. It was beautiful, but it was a trudge heading up all those stairs. For some reason, this was one of the hardest climbs we had. It might have hit Boyd harder than me, but that was probably from his backpack weighing more than mine.
Halfway up the stairs, we stopped at a scenic overview complete with rest stop and tiny souvenir/snacks shop. Here, we sat and marveled at the mountain's base from on high while restocking water. The women working the shop were as adorable as anticipated, going one step further and adding a little handwritten certificate proving our climb up the 2446 stone steps. Everything adorable on earth is in Japan, I have decided.
Going up the rest of the way was easier with the knowledge of half the steps behind us. We wandered upwards and finally reached the summit, walking up and down the gravel pathways to different temples built by ascetic mystic monks, including the temple of the three mounting gods who inhabit the three mountains of Dewa Sanzan. We walked into an information booth with free tea and sitting area as well as the little local museum, housing old scrolls and bronze Buddhas and Bodhisattvas ranging in age from 400 to 1000 years old. The sweet people at the front of the museum allowed us to leave our bags at the front desk rather than banging them about the museum.
We wandered over towards the temple lodgings where we would lay down our packs and sleep for the night. We had missed a night, so we were determined to make the most of our one night on the mystic mountain. We entered the building and made our way towards what looked like the front desk. It was strangely quiet and uninhabited save another couple from Europe who wandered in before us.
We checked in and were shown our room and where the toilets were. It was sparse compared to our lodgings in Koya, but this more bare and rugged setting was what we had originally expected when we stayed in Koya. What surprised us most was the lack of monks within the lodging itself. And the lack of showers. And the sub-par food where they actually served us fish, of all things. We were extremely weirded out at this point. There should be no fish or meat anywhere in the temple building and lodgings, let alone having it served at dinner.
Much confusion and frustration later, Boyd eventually got fed up and went to find the person at the front desk to settle our check before morning. We were so disappointed, we planned on heading out as early as possible in the morning and taking the first bus back to town.
Boyd came back to our room with some explanations. It seems that this lodging was not a temple itself but an inn. The owners lived in a room off of the office and were not monks themselves. There were showers and a bath past the kitchen. It was messy and disorganized, and it seemed that the owners had no idea how to handle guests. The morning prayers advertised in the booking were to take place in the big temple just down the pathway. We were relieved by this explanation. Things made more sense. We happily took some nice long showers and went to bed, still planning on leaving early but happy to be leaving without the last day's sweat on our brows.
We woke to a gorgeous sunrise. And a small reconsideration. We decided to stay for morning prayers. We rushed out of the lodging and headed up the path to the big main temple, hoping we had not missed the prayers. We arrived to a monk painstakingly placing offerings on the altar.We walked away disappointed but soon heard drums being played. Rushing back to the temple, we witnessed one of the most beautiful ceremonies we had ever seen as the monks and novices prayed and chanted throughout the entire temple area. This particular sect of Buddhism had female monks as well as male participating, and one of the women stepped close to us and spoke to us in Japanese. I still have no idea what she said, but I treasure the moment greatly.
With this beautiful picture of peace in mind, we grabbed the bus back to the city and train and back to Tokyo, happy in the knowledge that we had climbed thousands of stone stairs and witnessed a truly hallowed piece of history in the making.
TOKYO AND LOS ANGELES
The end of our Japan trip brought strange moments of déjà vu as we revisited many of the places where we began. Sure, returning to Tokyo meant that we would inevitably see some of the same sights, but I think we were drawn to repeating the beginning of our trip for deeper reasons. Katelyn and I react to the sadness of leaving a place very differently. My reaction begins a day or two before leaving, and I get mopey, wistful, and moody to prepare myself for the transition away from vacation. Katelyn, on the hand, is filled with a fierce motivation to do as much as possible before the vacation ends, and then she emotionally crashes after we leave and there is no reason to hold it all together any longer. Our reactions to leaving Japan were strong but certainly different, and throughout all our travels, we have found that this might be the biggest difference between our traveling styles.
Specifically, we revisited Mimi's rabbit cafe, a cafe that has rabbits to pet and hold. We had a five or six hour layover in Tokyo before flying to Los Angeles, so we decided to eat a memorable meal and then spend most of that time doing the shopping that we had repressed through most of the trip. The most memorable place we could think of was Mimi's, primarily because holding bunnies would help ease our anxiety about leaving, but also because we had tried to visit Mimi's our first day in Tokyo and it had been closed for a vacation day. Lo and behold, when we traveled to Ikebukuro and found Mimi's, which took a good chunk of time, the same vacation sign was on the door. We had visited the same rabbit cafe twice and found it closed both times.
We were disappointed enough that we did not eat lunch. Instead, we launched right into shopping for the gifts for our family and friends. We spent hours in Sunshine City, a large indoor mall that had a little bit of everything. Eventually, we were running thin on time and kept pushing dinner back further and further. First, we decided we get dinner midway through shopping. Then, we decided we would get dinner after shopping. Finally, we told ourselves that we would grab dinner at the train station. This eventually turned into us eating dinner at the airport. Hungry, we slid into a late night grilled bowl shop around 10pm. The only meals we had eaten that day were breakfast at a train station and dinner at an airpors. Luckily, our train station meal had been sushi from a conveyor belt, so we were okay eating grilled bowls since sushi had been one of our last meals.
We flew back to Los Angeles that night and found ourselves again laid over in LA, unable to catch our first couple of flights out to Atlanta. We spent the night in a nearby hotel, but unlike our first layover in LA, we were too tired to go catch a friend's show. I will be honest. Our hearts were a little too broken to do anything in LA. Japan was an incredible experience, and it will take a while to adjust to not being there. Hopefully, since our leaving was filled with déjà vu moments, we will have plenty of déjà vu moments in the weeks to come, where we feel a little bit of Japan resurfacing, inexplicably, in our lives.