Exotic Dream Trip to Japan
Thursday, May 28, 2015
Larry got a cold while in Kyoto, and I got mine the night we left Japan. We can do nothing but recover this week. While I rest and recuperate, I want to highlight my favorite aspects of this wonderful trip of a lifetime.
First and foremost, I tapped into a new level of spirituality there. I knew I was in for an awakening when I saw the baggage handler bow to an approaching limousine bus that would take us to our Tokyo hotel. Did I really witness him bow to a bus? Before departure, the handler came aboard the bus and bowed to us all before returning to ticket bags for the next group. On the super express train to Kamakura, a conductor bowed to us all in the car before entering and turned to bow again before leaving after checking our tickets. I found this behavior fascinating and surprising. Lastly, as we boarded a cable car before rising up a mountain, the attendant bowed as we left and bowed again as we arrived. Everyone bowed to everyone else in this country. I found I began to bow to anyone whose eyes I met or just approached everywhere we went. I really enjoyed feeling respected and offering back respect to complete strangers and new friends alike. Respecting others: what a concept.
Shrines were everywhere. Not only did we visit ancient temples and shrines in Tokyo, Kamakura, Kyoto and Nara, they were on most street corners and popped up everywhere. Shrines were both elaborate and simple, but unmistakable. I found myself bowing as I passed them on the street. While visiting the ancient ones, I made a point of bowing and praying in either Buddhist or Shinto style. I offered my coin, clapped or put my hands together in prayer and bowed in gratitude for the blessings and resources that brought us to this unique and sacred place. Then, I began to pray for a grandchild. When I saw all the written prayers and wishes for hundreds of visitors, I decided it was okay to ask for something too. Taking a moment to pray and be grateful was calming and brought peace to my heart and spirit. I had forgotten about it, and vowed to make a point to do this more once I got home. I lit candles and stopped at the smudging pot to cleanse my spirit at every opportunity. I loved it.
I began turning from eggs for breakfast and started choosing mackerel or salmon with steamed vegetables, rice and miso soup with seaweed for breakfast. I wondered each time I chose these how I would continue to eat this way when we returned home. We were eating enough food and did not overeat. We did not eat much sugar, and drank minimal alcohol during our visit. And, we drank a lot of tea, especially green tea. I felt great. We walked long distances every day, and although my feet and hips hurt at the end of each day, I was happy for the exercise. I felt great the next day and looked forward to more. Our eighty-five-year-old friend, carried a step counter and walked every day. He became my new mentor, and I vowed to get back to a daily walk on returning home. Larry said he would join me. We haven't done this so far, because we are sick and haven't gotten back to normal yet. I still have to go food shopping, and gain energy to spend time outside. I gave myself this week to recover.
I fell in love with heated toilet seats and bum washers. Larry has already researched "Toto" toilet products, and we can purchase seats for our existing toilets. It's just a matter of how much we want to spend for a hardwired version or something simpler. We will definitely purchase at least one for each house. I can't wait. I already miss that warm cozy feeling when I sit on the commode. I do NOT miss those versions in train stations and restaurants that required me to squat. My knees had such a hard time with these. Next time I travel, I'll bring my pee funnel.
I loved learning about the ancient history of the architecture and landscaping in this country. I am not particularly interested in war-related history which pervades all countries. I did find learning about the Shogun and Geisha very interesting, though. They are just different from my historical frame of reference. And, I loved the lettering. Signs were so beautiful. I saw people on subways and trains reading Japanese books from right to left; top to bottom. I could follow their eyes, and smiled to myself. It was just so different. I embraced the differences, and they gave me a healthy perspective on my own way of life.
This new perspective is why I love to travel in the first place. I look for similarities in human behavior, lifestyles and cultures. And, I notice the differences and enjoy learning about them in order to appreciate them. This appreciation allows me to compare life in the United States or my own neighborhood, and choose new tools for my life's "toolbox"; incorporate those behaviors and aspects I like into my own life, or not depending on what it is. Expanding my world view is very important to me. Understanding humanity, growing my spirituality, incorporating variety into my wellness routine are all crucial to my overall good health and happiness.
As long as we can, we will continue to explore the world. Life is much too short. On this trip, I learned that it would serve us well to reduce our stuff, and compact our lives. Less is more, because it allows us to concentrate on inner well being. Everyone we met in Japan smiled, seemed happy, was respectful and lived a full life. These are attributes I am interested in fostering in mine. "Made in Japan" has new meaning for me now, and I am grateful for this new knowledge and understanding.
Thank you to our gracious and generous Japanese friends, and to those strangers (turned new friends) who made our trip most enjoyable. Thank you also to my Facebook friends who followed along with this blog and offered me support and encouragement to keep posting. Arigatou gozaimasu, Oki-ni, and Sayonara.
Saturday, May 23, 2015
Day 9: Nara
Yoshino met us in the lobby at 8:30am. We thought we`d beat him for a change, but NO! We took an express train and a couple of buses to the far end of Nara to see Horyuji Temple. It houses the oldest surviving wooden structures in the world, "conveying images of Japan as it existed more than 1,300 years ago." It was magnificent.
Next, we slurped noodles for lunch then got back on a bus to Nara proper. We found a sightseeing taxi and went to the third summit of Wakakusayama where we enjoyed vistas of the city and surrounding mountains. It is said that a god rode a white deer down to the mountain and that`s why the deer remain cared for and roam free all over, including the park in town. They are everywhere, and people sell crackers to feed them. It was really cool. I petted a couple; so did Yoshino.
He also lead us to the top to see the boulder that was the burial place of elite people 1,500 years ago. What a view!
The driver dropped us at Todai-Ji Temple where the biggest Buddha you could ever imagine lives in a gigantic building. It was truly amazing.
We enjoyed our last dinner in Japan in a lovely Nara Chinese restaurant with magnificent views of the city, and headed back on the express train to Kyoto pleasantly exhausted and satisfied in a trip well lived.
Yoshino was a wonderful and generous host. We are so happy we came. Thanks to all who travelled along with us through this blog. Your feedback was very kind. I truly appreciate it. Namaste.
Friday, May 22, 2015
Day 8: Shrines and Shopping
Today was our Ph.D. defense in Kyoto public transportation. We found the local bus that took us southeast of Kyoto Station to the station a short walk up hill to Fushimi Inari Shrine. We never saw such a place.
The shrine is a menagerie of orange gates surrounding small shrines leading to the thousand gates. The gates have so many levels, all up hill, that we gave up before reaching the top on Mt. Inari. It didn`t matter. What we saw was magnificent.
A small group of uniform-clad school girls lead by their teacher asked us if we would speak English with them. I got them to say, "Go Red Sox!" It was precious. We took pictures of each other and continued on our respective ways.
We found our way back to the train station and figured out the stop closest to Sanjusangendo. This is a temple that houses "the thousand armed Kannon": a thousand, golden, multi-armed gods with 28 soldier gods in front and a huge Shiva-like god in the middle. It was incredible. No photographs allowed. We had to remove our shoes. The building is the longest wooden building in Japan. I lit a candle and said a prayer there.
We got a curry lunch, then boarded another train that took us to the furthest northern part of the city. There we walked to the Kyoto Handicraft Center. I was able to completely finish my souvenir shopping there.
After disembarking the train at what we thought was the closest station to Kyoto Station, we got lost. We were hot, tired and had aching lower halfs. It was not close, and we kept turning around until we got past buildings that blocked the Sky Tower, our landmark. GEEZ.
Yoshino flew in so we met him for dinner. Tomorrow he has big plans to show us Nara: home of the largest Buddha and the oldest temple. Stay tuned. It`s our last day of vacation. We can`t believe it.
Thursday, May 21, 2015
Day 7: Kyoto Tour and Flea Market
We took a fun and interesting half-day city bus tour including Nijo Castle, Golden Pavilion and the Imperial Palace. Our local guide, Yumi, was a little Japanese Ever-ready Bunny. Keeping up with her orange pom-pom amidst the crowds of tours and school children was challenging. But, it was a beautiful, warm day.
Nijo Castle was built in 1603, and was the home of the first Shogun.
Yumi lead use through the many halls with differently painted ornate ceilings. She described how the Shogun lived and used each room. All rooms had murals painted on every wall. Some murals were meant to portray power, others peacefulness. This was his temporary residence. His wife lived in Tokyo. The entire building was constructed out of Japanese Cypress. It had a Nightingale Floor that squeaked like a bird to warn against Ninja attack. It was plainly beautiful; not loudly painted or ornate.
Next we visited the exquisite Golden Pavilion. This is a lovely building covered in gold leaf. It sits in the middle of a beautiful pond with gardens that "borrow from nature", meaning it uses existing landscape features in the planning of its gardens. It is a beautiful place.
Lastly, we were escorted through the grounds of the Imperial Palace. We walked all around the outside of the buildings and the garden with the same landscape style as the Golden Pavilion in that it "borrowed from nature": tall trees symbolize mountains, pond symbolizes ocean, rocks symbolize the beach. It is beautiful and peaceful.
When we returned from the tour, we walked to To-ji Temple. It was the Shogun`s home, and his birthday was on the 21st of May. So, on May 21st every year, the public is invited to the grounds to hold a huge flea market. We got there late, but it was very much a flea market like any other, just more Japanesey. We had fun.
Legs, hips and feet were killing us, but I wanted a drink. There was an Irish pub outside Kyoto Station, do we dropped in. It was like Cheers bar in Boston. We chatted with foreigners from Canada and the US who now live and work here. It was great. We made new friends and hobbled out smiling. It was a great end to a lovely day.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Day 6: Kyoto
Mayumi met us promptly in the hotel lobby and whisked us off in a taxi to Tokyo Station. She gave us our bullet train tickets, paid for the taxi, and waited with us until it was time to board the train.
She met our friend, Yoshino, the first day we arrived and spoke with him. Now she was curious to know more about him. We spent the time Googling him and looking at the pictures I took of our time with him. We spent a little too much time on this, so we rushed to our train car. She waited in line with us to make sure we got to our seats.
As the train pulled out, there she was waving and bowing until we were out of sight. Talk about excellent service. She earned her tip and was grateful. While we road this super express train to Kyoto, she contacted our new guide, Michiko, with details about what we wanted for lunch and shopping preferences.
Michiko was right there when we exited the train. She is also very nice and 28 years ago, lived in Worcester, MA for four years! She asked what kind of lunch we wanted and took us immediately to her favorite Japanese restaurant in Kyoto Station, where our hotel resides.
While we waited for food, she reviewed the portfolio of information she created for us about the city, shopping and sites to enjoy. Once again, we were treated like royalty by a very friendly, efficient and happy woman. She left us to eat on our own and returned to escort us to our hotel.
Good thing she did too. Kyoto Station is a city in and of itself! She also escorted us to the pickup hotel for our Maiko dinner theater experience tonight and our half-day tour of the city tomorrow. Then she showed us where the ramen noodle "street" was. Yes, there is an indoor street of many little restaurants from every region of Japan that serve ramen.
So many choices; so little time.
Tuesday, May 19, 2015
Day 5: Mount Fuji, Lake Kowaguchiko
We got some good rest yesterday, and ate fairly light this morning. Even without dinner last night, we have felt full. We are learning about eating enough and not too much. What a concept!
It was back to New Hotel Otani for pick-up and delivery to the bus terminal for our day-long tour. What a day it was! Our guide, Nana-san, was a pure delight. My only regret is she was always in silhouette so I never got a good picture of her. She was beautiful inside and out. We were cared for, entertained and educated. It was really fun. She began by singing us a greeting song to the tune of Happy Birthday. Her voice was lovely.
Nana-san was concerned the weather was not good for seeing Mount Fuji or much else along the ride, so she came well prepared. She rigged a way to hang homemade posters in the aisle of how the mountain is layered; how the crater is layed out with shrines and hiking trails, and pictures of the mountain. She passed around prints of Mt. Fuji paintings and wood prints, and introduced us to the Mt. Fuji song created by the friction of the bus tires on the road. The song is different going up and coming down. We learned about Japan history, how rice is grown and the Japanese language. She had a song for everything! We sang along as we learned to count to ten.
We stopped for a delicious Japanese lunch at a nice hotel. The layered sections of sashimi, tempura and other delights were served in a gourd-shaped thingy. It was really delicious.
The weather in Hakone and on Lake Ashi was so bad they shut down the vernicular to the top of a smaller mountain and the boat cruise. Instead she rearranged the same events on a different mountain and on Lake Kowaguchiko. It was a wonderful experience with spectaular views of Mount Fuji. The sun came out and it was a lovely, warm afternoon.
Because the tour advertized Hakone and Lake Ashi, Nana-san felt compelled to take us there anyway. It became a welcome bathroom break.
She made sure we had all our connecting train tickets, and printed everything out for each family. She was thorough, efficient, kind, funny and sweet.
We have not tipped one person since we came here. The guide books encouraged it, but Yoshino said "no tipping anybody". We discovered it is really not expected. Nana-san was not offered a tip by anyone, but Larry and I wanted to tip her. I asked her politely to please accept the gratuity with our gratitude for all her hard work. She was flustered, but thanked us. It was awkward.
We tip way too much in America. Just saying... people here take pride in providing excellent service, and it is enough. Imagine that.
Monday, May 18, 2015
Day 4: Tokyo City Bus Tour
This was the first day on our own. After only a couple hours sleep, we had a lighter breakfast and left for The New Hotel Otani to be picked up. I can`t believe I`m eating Mackeral; steamed carrots, turnip and squash, and curry with vegetables over rice porridge for breakfast. I really like it.
We used the maps that our local guide, Mayumi, provided last Friday to find our way to the hotel. We arrived a little early, so we made a preventive bathroom run. We came out to find a Page carrying a sign reading "Mr. Larry Gardner" on it. I didn`t think I took that long!
As we approached the pick up area again, an Indian woman was firmly saying, "I think you should be more sensitive. I must get something for my baby from my room!" She was most annoyed with a young man we were being directed towards. We thought these were our only tour mates. Oh God, was all that went through my mind. Is this how the day will go? The man was in fact in charge of pickup and needed to get us moving as there were three more hotels to stop and pickup more attendees before delivering us to the bus terminal for our tour.
The terminal was chaos. We finally got in the right line and on our bus. The local guide was a professional young woman with a thick Japanese accent and an annoyingly high quality to her voice. Her speach and instructions for the day were somewhat patronizing and repetitive. "You will call me (Name I can`t remember)-sam. You will only call the driver, Driver-san because that is his job, and only speak to him in Japanese." Such was her humor and the tone for our half-day tour. The screaming baby with the smelly diaper that clearly annoyed her, and almost broke my eardrum when his daddy brought him behind us so the guide could talk was a test of all our resolves.
Tokyo Tower looked like an orange Eiffel Tower. We were escorted to the highest enclosed observation platform, 333 meters high. The views were magnificent, but I couldn`t hear a word the guide said. She practically ran ahead of us all morning, creating a stressful atmosphere and always began talking when she arrived whether the rest of us were there or not. Needless to say, we did not tip her. But, we got great shots of Tokyo from above. The observation floor just below us provided scary but really cool views through the floor to the ground way down there.
The Imperial Palace was closed, and we were escorted around the outside garden along the streets. "There are the two and three-story watch towers, but you can`t go into the palace grounds, so you`ll have to come back on either December 23rd or January 2nd(the Emperor`s birthday) when you can meet him and the Empress. They will stand behind bullet-proof glass on a platform above you and give a five-minute speach five times a day." Really? I think not, bitch. Why was this on our tour, we thought?
Our favorites were sites we planned to visit on our own because the Sanja spring festival was this past weekend and we couldn`t attend: Asakusa Shrine and the Nakamise Shopping Street between its sacred gates touting an experience from the Edo period (Tokyo`s old name).
Again, our guide was useless but she did help me auickly find my good fortune paper when I shook out a stick from a metal fortune-providing tube. And, she directed us to the entrance of the shrine. When we approached the inner sanctum, we were turned away by the monk. Our guide sealed her no-tip fate.
The building and concomitant shopping experience, complete with smudging station, were worth it though. I prayed, smudged, and prayed again. My cup of tea. But, we needed iced coffee, so we found a lovely cafe to rest our weary bones and aching feet; eat rice dishes and rest a while. The young wait staff were friendly, kind and spoke enough English to make our virgin excursion into unescorted Japan a joy.
We also did some shopping. The sweet older women with no English, but kind faces, nice smiles and helpful, patient hearts assisted me in buying a few souvenirs.
We found our own way back to a train station and through the subway maze to our hotel. We crashed at 1:30 pm and never left our room to eat again. We are just that tired. The best layed plans...
It was still a good day, and tomorrow we`re off to Mount Fuji.