Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Journey to Japan

Taking advantage of our proximity to Asia, we decided to take a National Geographic tour to Japan. We chose this tour because a NatGeo expert that led us around Morocco in 2015 would be with us again. Even though Asia is closer to CA than it is Switzerland or the east coast, it was still a 12 hour flight! At least it was non-stop to Osaka.

appetizers -crane is a chopstick holder
Japanese food on Japan airlines flight

Upon arrival, we had to have our fingerprints taken on an electronic device. I had to repeat this over and over with each finger and thumb while being told to press harder. I think it never worked and they finally just gave up and let me in the country. A bit of a stressful start. There were signs in the airport that said if you had fever or diarrhea to get in the quarantine line! Never saw that before. No one was admitting to symptoms and standing in that line. 

map only shows the part of Japan visited on the main tour - Tokyo is much further east

After a van ride from Osaka to Kyoto where the tour was to start, we were exhausted, but not so exhausted that we overlooked that the toilet had a heated seat! We didn't suffer too much from jet-lag and were ready to start touring the next morning. 

Ryoanji entrance

Before Tokyo, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years and therefore a fitting place to start our tour.  We began with the first of what would be many Buddhist temples and Zen rock gardens (which they also call dry landscape garden). 

listening to the guide through headsets - this is where people come to meditate - behind us is the photo below

Water runs through the spout continually. Surrounding the square drain in the center are four characters which when read clockwise from the top read: I only contentment learn. This is what the people meditating are trying to achieve.

We visited many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The first was the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.

When you're tall you can reach above people and get pictures that make it seem like no one else is there!
Food was an adventure that began on the plane and ended when we got back to CA. When we arrived for lunch, the tables were set with rows of bento boxes. The only problem was no one knew what to do! The guides had to show us how to eat what was served on several occasions. The meals were served without a western style napkin. We were given a wet wipe instead. I was never fond of the replacement and did not adopt the habit. We had chopsticks at every meal except the European style dinners. My skill with chopsticks improved, but I'm sure it's poor again.

I cannot identify all the items - some of it was tasty, some not

The Sanzen-in Temple was surrounded by lovely gardens with moss and small statues. It was one of many times where we had to remove our shoes and kneel or sit on the floor. Tom and I don't kneel well and getting up wasn't pretty, but others had even more trouble. 


 Interesting way to support the trees - we saw it in many places.

Once again, visitors could look out into the garden from the temple. We were served tea and a "sweet". Both were quite disgusting and I could not finish. (The tea was actually thick and also not warm!)


Approximately 380 samurai committed suicide here in 1600 which caused the ceiling to be stained with their blood - gross.

temple interior

In the garden, our guide, David Silverberg, brought our attention to this statue of Saraswati. She is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, wisdom and learning and is married to Brahma. David points out both the surprise of seeing her in Japan and the correlation between she and Brahma, and Abraham and Sarah from Judaeo-Christian history.  David is also standing in front of a Shinto Shrine - on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. We would see this repeatedly. Japanese have no problem practicing both Buddhism and Shintoism.

In addition to a multiple course meal, our welcome dinner included an opportunity to watch geisha perform. (most geisha are in Kyoto) We met a former geisha who now runs a geisha house (responsible for their performance schedule and training), current geisha and a maiko (apprentice geisha). 

former geisha, apprentice and current geisha

her own hair

The maiko wears a wig - for a month! She needs a special pillow in order to sleep without messing up the wig! The special hair decorations are very expensive.

a wig

acknowledging our applause

we had to take our shoes off again

Kyoto is known for having a large number of temples and shrines. We visited the ones with special designation such as UNESCO World Heritage or National Treasures. (Some are probably both) Tenryuji Temple is surrounded by gardens and also a bamboo grove. Luckily no tea was served. 

Interiors can seem very plain by Western standards, but I believe that is the point - no distractions. The floors are lined with tatami mats for kneeling.

a hint of autumn - it had been too warm for the leaves to turn earlier


 Light rain didn't ruin our experience in the grove of very tall bamboo trees.


On the temple grounds, we found another Shinto shrine. Our guide described and then demonstrated how people pay their respects.

It's always fun to notice the street food possibilities. Here the vendor is selling fried sweet potatoes with sugar and three flavors of tea ice cream. No thank you.

At another location, fish grilled on a stick was offered. We'd just eaten and weren't hungry anyway. Surprisingly, we were served small fish like this as part of a dinner. How to eat it? We watched the guide rip it apart with chopsticks. We copied him and it did taste good - better than a lot of the unknown items.

Having traveled extensively in Europe, we have an idea of what European castles look like. Japanese castles are very different!


It was warm and very humid - I had to tie my hair back! The temperature was warmer than we expected almost the whole trip. I was very glad to have added a couple extra short sleeve shirts to the suitcase right before departure.

No photos were allowed inside - a scan of the brochure is the only visual of the interior. The castle had no furnishings visible. Most rooms are empty except for the mats on the floor and the walls covered with painted screens. There are doors to closets where any furnishings would be stored and brought out when needed. The floors were intentionally made to squeak so no intruder could approach undetected. It sure worked and with a parade of tourists going through was quite a cacophony!

We had some free time in the afternoon and opted to visit a site not included on the tour: the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shinto Shrine. Dating from the 8th century, it is one of the most important shrines. There is a tunnel of red torii gates representing donors - with names on them which we couldn't read. We took a taxi over to the area and back.

fancy seat covers inside the taxi!
The shrine is in the middle of the busy city streets and not easily accessible by bus. It was also crowded and spread out. I understand why it was not included in the tour, but recommended that they try to add it in the future. 

pedestrian area on the way to the shrine

a very large path of torii gates!

water for cleansing before approaching the shrine


entrance to the torii gate tunnel

donors named
looking down on the torii gate tunnel

On our own for dinner, we opted for a sushi place within walking distance of our hotel and also recommended by our NatGeo expert. There was a line outside which we took as a good sign. We waited for two seats at the bar to become available. The sushi choices were traveling along in front of all the diners on a conveyor belt. No service here - just take whatever plate holds what you want to eat. The designs on the plates indicate the price of your choices.

cards on conveyor belt had English translations - yay!

notice the large stack of empty plates on the left side of photo

We ate well and got away with a dinner for two for less than $20! 

rest stop
Traveling to the Mt. Koya area, we spent several hours in the bus.  We were entertained with information and readings from our guides. At rest stops along the way, it was interesting to see what was being bought and sold. Some snacks were purchased for the whole group to taste.

fresh persimmons
Persimmons were readily available both fresh and dry. I bought two dried varieties which we snacked on over the next few days. They were pretty good.

didn't buy any fish

Japanese love to pickle lots of food - so many choices. I bought none, but was often served some.

Eventually we made it to our destination and we were ready for more exploration. Luckily for me, our lunch stop also had an extensive gift shop. Once again a warm humid day, I bought a fan! Phew. It provided a bit of relief. 

What may seem an odd stop on the tour, we walked through the Okuno-in cemetery. It's huge with 200,000 tombs of samurai warriors and dignitaries buried there in addition to more recent tombs. Other cemeteries I've seen are on cleared land, but here the tombs are in a grove of cedar trees giving it a very different feel. It was somber to walk through - it felt like we were walking in history and was definitely one of the highlights for me.  

Many of the tombs had markers with these five shapes representing from the bottom: earth, water, fire, air, and space.

Shape Represents Sanskrit Japanese
Jewel-shape Space ख / kha kuurin
Hemisphere Air ह / ha fuurin
Pyramid Fire फ / fa karin
Sphere Water व / va suirin
Cube Earth अ / a chirin

We saw markers with red bibs (and sometimes hats, too) here and in other places. They represent children who died before their parents.

where are you supposed to put your legs? kneeling hurts!

Even our accommodations for the night were part of the adventure. We spent the night at the monastery lodge. Both dinner and breakfast were served while we sat on the floor! So hard to eat that way. We also slept on a mat on the floor with a hard pillow that felt like it was a bag full of rice. Neither of us slept well, that's for sure.

Monk greeted us and explained about the facility while our guide translated.
 traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner - lots of unknown items - not all yum!
presence of a TV was very surprising

An optional activity for the morning was to join the monks in a prayer service.  Again, we had to sit on the floor, either kneeling or sitting so your legs were not out in front of you beyond a line on the mat. There were only three monks present and the chanting lasted for at least 30 minutes. It was even more difficult to stand up after all that time. Tom said, "If the point is to reduce or eliminate suffering, why is there so much kneeling?"  

When we left the lodge, our bus drove onto a ferry to take us to the island of Shikoku. David gave us a talk about the geography of Japan while we could see some of the islands and water he described. 

Tokushima is home to a 400-year old dance festival. We didn't see the festival, but we viewed a museum with the traditional costumes and were treated to a dance demonstration. 

Audience members were invited to participate....why not? 

I was so disappointed that their costumes were not for sale!

The island of Shikoku has a 750 mile and 88 temple pilgrimage route. Thankfully, we only stopped at one of the temples. 

We spent the next two nights at a traditional Japanese ryokan (inn) that has on-site hot spring baths. Once again we were on the floor, but the pillow was slightly improved. I didn't think I'd be "free" enough to go in the baths, but it felt good after a day of being sweaty. It was dark in there anyway. Our guide explained the ritual and we both tried it. It was refreshing enough to go in both days. 

Surprisingly, we were told it was totally polite and expected to come to dinner in the robes they provided! (totally naked underneath) I was definitely too warm to wear the extra jacket.


While we were on the island of Shikoku, we learned how this region is much less populated than in the past. Many people have left the area to find work in cities. They are now encouraging tourism as a way to bring more people back. There was more than one opportunity to cross a vine bridge which is now reinforced with steel cables, but still open enough to see the water below.

I was able to make myself walk across, but I never took my hand off the side rail; therefore, there are no pictures of Tom on the bridge. He stands a safe distance away.


The other way to cross the river is the "monkey box".  We gave it a try - why not? Japanese people are smaller than us - it was hard to fit inside especially with two of us. 

We visited a 300 year old thatched roof farmhouse called the Chiiori Trust. It hopes to preserve the old rural traditions and is now like a museum. It's so remote, I'm sure a reservation in advance would be necessary.

beautiful setting in the middle of nowhere



open air side walls

Chiiori interior - let's sit on the floor for a change

looking out
underside of thatched roof

There are few restaurants in the area (maybe only one). We visited one that was more like a home with the tiny kitchen right next to where we were seated. (Tom got a stool this time - sitting on the floor is even harder with long legs.)  The chef also sang for us after we ate! That was a first for me. 

the chef is really short - we're both bending down
When a former resident of the region came back to care for her aging parents, she discovered how few people were there. She started making "scarecrows" to populate the area. We walked around "meeting" the scarecrows busy with different tasks.

Tom tried to buy something from the shop
No disputing it is a beautiful area.

We were invited to the mayor's house where they greeted us with song and the same traditional dance we learned earlier on the tour. The creator (mother) of the scarecrows is a local heroine. We were also enlisted in helping make a treat for all to share. 

the scarecrow mother
Lots of us were needed to help pound the rice mixture into a paste that could then be filled with sweet bean paste. This was edible.


One of the most important Buddhist monks in Japanese history is Kobo Daishi. We visited Zentsuji which is his birthplace and now also a complex of pagodas and temples.

pilgrims preparing to enter temple

I loved the hands-on experiences of this trip. We went to an Udon noodle factory where we learned how to make the noodles and then ate them! It was a lot of fun!


In order to prepare the dough for cutting, we took turns dancing on it inside a plastic bag. 

noodles were added to the broth at right

branch support

The beautiful Ritsurin Garden originally from the 16th century was designated a "Special Place of Scenic Beauty" in 1953 and is now protected by the government. It is a peaceful place to take a stroll.  

You never know who you'll see wandering around. 


It was warm enough to share an ice cream cone. Couldn't force myself to try the chestnut or the tea flavors - went for vanilla instead. We also didn't go for the cereal on top of the ice cream.


Once again, we were back on the ferry leaving Shikoku Island and heading to Naoshima.  

Views from the ferry:


we got used to seeing this

We were thrilled to have a hotel room complete with western style beds. (Surprisingly, this and all the rest of the hotels provided nightshirts in addition to bath robes!) The small island of Naoshima is currently a mecca of contemporary art and architecture.  Art was easily accessible walking around the hotel grounds. 

view from our hotel room - buildings are part of the hotel

moving sculpture outside hotel restaurant

aerial view of museum complex - buildings underground
We visited a local complex of art museums. 

The installations were quite large and the guests were invited to enter the space and be part of the art. Of course, shoes were removed and we were to remain quiet which made the whole experience a bit eerie. (same space from the top or bottom of the stairs - we walked up the stairs)

This room was very dark and the color changed throughout the day. We walked up the stairs  and into the color block in the photo.
The Art House Project transformed old, abandoned buildings into mostly interactive art installations. One of the art projects was totally dark. We had to stay with our hand on the wall until we got to an area of minimal light. It was a very uncomfortable feeling to be able to see absolutely nothing. It gave me such respect for people who are blind and have figured out a way to live in darkness.

caution - the glass staircase doesn't lead anywhere

 We happened upon art in unexpected places.  

Fun crosswalk pictures:

This building was full of odd remnants, scraps, postcards and paper currency on the surfaces of some rooms - like a walk-in collage. The photo below was on the second floor. From the ground it didn't look like much, but when we climbed the stairs, then I saw a boat. 

I chose my shirt because I knew we were going to see this huge polka dot pumpkin!

big enough to go inside!

From here we said farewell to Naoshima and returned to Honshu. It was our first experience with the Japanese bullet train which we rode to Hiroshima.

I was a bit concerned about being an American visiting Hiroshima. Obviously, the devastation that was experienced was all American created. A piece of the old was left standing as a reminder of what humans are capable of doing to one another. The Peace Memorial Park and Museum were not anti-American. It was moving and sad to see, but the emphasis is on peace and hope. 


the crane is a symbol of hope and peace

School groups make paper cranes and bring them to be put on display at the Peace Memorial. 

President Obama also donated cranes

After another ferry ride (Japan has a lot of islands and we only visited a few), we arrived at Itsukushima Island, also called Miyajima.  The highlight was the 12th century Shinto Shrine built over the water. We were greeted by one of the iconic torii gates as we approached the island. 

looking out from the island

shrine complex

We were told that the shrine is a popular place to take wedding photos and we were treated to a wedding party walking past. Photos by tourists were expected.

Lunch was not included in the tour today and we decided to try the local street food. 

cooking what Tom holds below

Deep fried deliciousness with various fillings. Tom had cheese and I had cream. Mine was like starting with dessert. OK, twist my arm.

Meat filled dumplings - yum.

I chose asparagus and bacon and Tom had cheese and bacon. Lunch probably wasn't as healthy as the meals the tour provided, but it was tasty and fun.

We weren't finished with opportunities to kneel or sit on the floor - we experienced a traditional tea ceremony. Everyone was served individually. Much bowing was involved.

making the tea
The ceremony (making, serving and consuming the tea and cookie) was done in silence.  Both women were able to move from their kneeling position to standing very gracefully without putting their hands on the floor. Impressive. 

We had a rare opportunity to take pictures inside this Buddhist temple.

Look Mom! No shoes .... again

Decoration in front of the Buddha is an intricately designed mandala made of colored sand.

Under the temple building, there was a large collection art depicting gods in gold leaf.


Although it was clearly on a lot of tour itineraries, we still enjoyed Miyajima. 

waiting for our bullet train
We parted ways with more than half of our group on the way to Tokyo - only 10 of us continued. 

 box lunches on the train


Finally in Tokyo, we had a brief photo stop at the Imperial Palace.


The Edo-Tokyo Museum has a great collection. Sadly, we had to move quickly to see a decent amount of it before our rendezvous time. 


Kobuki Theater

Our guide took anyone interested to see the busy intersection labeled "the Scramble". Many streets come together and eventually all traffic lights are red. Masses of people cross in all directions. 

Since we were interested in sushi for dinner, Kondosan took us to a place the locals go near the station in Ginza. We did not find any of the fancy rolls that are found in the USA. It appears they're not very traditional. (I like them anyway.)

the menu
the eel was fabulous!
all good except what looks like a sponge
miso soup

Tom, Kondosan and another group member, Jane

Tokyo subway

gates prevent people from jumping onto the tracks



local theater still performs Kabuki

Touring Tokyo's large fish market was an interesting and colorful experience (it actually had more than only fish).



octopus, etc

wasabi before it becomes a green paste

dried fish - we tried the eel and scallops

Popular Japanese dog breeds, shiba inu and akita, are prominent in advertising, particularly in Tokyo. There was a movie based on the true story of one of these breeds. The dog went to the train station to meet his human every day, even for years after the man died. There was an American remake of the movie about 20 years after the original. The dog, Hatchi, earned himself a statue in Tokyo. 



Coincidentally, Shane and Alicia just happen to have this same breed of dog. I wonder if he is as loyal. 


Tsukiji Hongan-ji (Jodo Shinshu Buddhist Temple) shows Indo-Asian influence


Our last "hands on" experience was a calligraphy class. Thankfully, we had low stools and tables, but it was still very challenging to make our writing look anything like the examples. I loved it and could have stayed longer. 

our teachers


Tom's work
adding my stamp
One thing that was ubiquitous throughout Japan was coffee vending machines. They were everywhere - even along the road where there seemed there would be no source of electricity. The coffee was available in cans and was sometimes warm, sometimes cold,  sometimes sweet, sometimes not. We were never really sure what we would get, but at least the afternoon caffeine fix was not a problem. 

At dinner on our own, we sampled traditional Japanese pancakes (okonomiyaki). Their shape is the only similarity to American pancakes. They have noodles, cabbage, vegetables, eggs and a choice of meat. They were cooked in the kitchen and put on the griddle in the center of the table to keep warm.

challenging to eat with chopsticks, but quite good

Japan is also known for its plastic food. Most restaurants have plastic samples of their menu items outside the entrance. 
lot of choices

ice cream shop

an entire store of fake food
sushi clock

In Tokyo, plastic food was for sale to anyone, restaurant or not. 

looks tasty, but all plastic

biggest lantern I've ever seen
As long as we're still in Japan, there must be time for another temple! The Senso-ji temple was built originally in the 7th century and is now a complex of shrines, temples and a pagoda.

cleaning up


the shops!
Perhaps to remind everyone this is a capitalist country, there are lines of souvenir shops nearby.

The people watching around the temple was amusing. We saw many young women dressed in elegant kimonos having their pictures taken at the temple, but also many people in western clothing. I asked our guide whether there was a special occasion being marked and was surprised to learn that the kimono wearing people were not Japanese! It is a trend for young people in other Asian countries to travel to Japan, rent a kimono, take pictures and post them to social media! He said it was easy for him to spot that they were not Japanese by the way they walk (steps too large) and their body language. 



mission accomplished
We decided to venture out on our own in search of the local Hard Rock Cafe. Our mission was to buy Sarah a pin for her work uniform in NYC.  As we were struggling with the ticket machine in the subway station, a kind Japanese woman asked whether she could help us. She told us what ticket to buy and where we needed to go, even offering to take us there! We thanked her, but declined her offer. 


It is possible to tour Tokyo in cars and costumes as though you are in a Mario video game. We didn't try it, but I know some people who would have.

so many different colors and sizes of tomatoes

It's always fun to take a quick peek at a foreign grocery store's produce department. 

flowers for garnishes

mostly unrecognizable

As long as we kept a good pace, we were able to see a fair amount of the displays at the Tokyo National Museum. Mount Fuji is on their sign and is prominent in artwork, past and present. 

antique kimono with dragon

dragon kimono fastener

samurai armor

looks almost as good as what we created!

huge Torii gate, but not the traditional red

Our last day in Japan = one last shrine. Meiji Shrine is relatively young - not quite 100 years old.

empty sake barrels now used for advertising

Before this trip, I was only familiar with hot sake. In Japan, it is served either hot or cold. Since it was so warm during the trip, most people opted for cold. I sampled it, but it's not going to be my new favorite.

We finished up our tour of Tokyo by visiting Takeshita Street, an alley where teen fashion and culture is found. It was crowded with both locals and tourists.

lego and candy octopus on top of candy store

It seems the locals go to buy and be seen in "cute" garb. Evidently, this is another trend - the clothing is reminiscent of elementary school and doesn't quite seem appropriate for the age group wearing it. 




There was even cute ice cream available. Very tempting, but we passed. 

We saw some adorable little children all dressed up in kimonos. After our curious questions, we learned that there is a special celebration for children on their third birthdays. Being all dressed in traditional garb is part of the event even though the parents are in modern, western clothes. They allowed us to photograph their children.

We have fun with photo ops:

one bearded woman!


A few last shots from people watching which we clearly enjoy:

crossing Tokyo's scramble intersection
creative sun protection


Finally, it was time to go to the airport and head back to LA. 

photo op at airport - maybe we'll be in their advertising!
 We were once again very pleased to have traveled with National Geographic.

Anyone considering a trip to Japan, you are hereby warned not to order an omelet or if you do to ask for it to be "well-done". They serve the omelets extremely under cooked and with ketchup on top. 

local stop sign

If you've made it this far, my wish is that you're not too bleary-eyed. You deserve a prize for finishing!

"Thank you for coming!" (This phrase is used as a greeting by Japanese to westerners very frequently. When our bus left a hotel, the staff bowed to us and then waved both hands above their head.)