Opening Statement



Thursday, 21 November 2019

Japan A Go Go!



Janet and I experienced autumn twice this year. We enjoyed the crimson splash of colour as the leaves changed colour at our country place in Land o’ Lakes, Ontario, Canada. Then flew half way across the world to watch them explode again in gorgeous splendour in Japan. 

It was a real high! Beyond compare! A fitting celebration. It's official. Janet is retired now too! Japan was on both our bucket lists. So, away we go:

The 12+ hour direct flight from Toronto to Tokyo was totally discombobulating. We sat through 3 meals, a couple of movies, endless chatter, a snooze, with still a few hours to spare. The 14 hour time difference was manageable upon arrival. It was evening, so we went to bed early for a good nights sleep. But it was murder coming back. 

Still well worth it. Our most fantastic trip yet!

We spent 12 nights in Japan. From Tokyo, we travelled to Nikko, Mount Fuji, Hakone, Takayama, Shirakawago, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, Hiroshima, Miyajima and Osaka. We booked our trip through Jade Tours at New Wave Travel, here in Toronto. Most of our excursions were with Sunrise Tours. By bus, train, boat and on foot. 



Quite frankly, Japan is very cultured, sophisticated and efficient. Moreso than most places we’ve travelled, even among the G20 countries. The cellphones, tablets, computers and apps are more advanced. The transportation technology is amazing. The trains are always on time. Even the public toilets onboard the super fast, bullet train have heated seats. They lean back. Play music. And deodorize any smells.  

Our hotel rooms were very comfy, with plenty of extras. Arrivals and departures ran smoothly. The transfers were very orderly. Our suitcases were aways picked up and dropped off at our next location, right away, on time, without fail. 

The staff and tour guides? Or the locals in the street? Unfailing helpful, friendly and polite. We were shocked. The young folk automatically step up to help, or offer their elders a seat. 

We like to think that Canadians are polite and considerate, eh? Ha!



Bump into somebody by accident? Commit some other such faux pas? Everyone bows to each other out of respect. To smooth things over. And move on, with a touch of social grace, so sadly lacking back home in the west.

Usually Janet and I only book airfare and our hotel in advance. We decided to try a package tour of Japan. We were worried that the huge crowds, and quite different Japanese language and customs might be very confusing, at least for our first trip. 

But no problem! We've visited the other side of the world. Everything ran smoothly. Like clockwork. We felt safe. Were never afraid. Even though far from home. Our world. The one we know best. It was very easy for us to travel about in Japan, relaxing and enjoying ourselves to the max!

Here’s a few notes, in case you'd like go:

TOKYO



Our first 3 nights were at the Keio Plaza Hotel, while we explored Tokyo and Niko. Our room was comfy, not too small, like we had feared. Had all the modern amenities, and then some. 

The Keio is conveniently located beside the Shinjuku station and shopping complex. We also enjoyed shopping at the nearby Shibuya Crosswalk, a short subway trip awayTower Records has 6 floors of music, mostly on CD's, over a third of them JPop. The local scene is huge. But floor displays also touted the latest reissues by western pop legends the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash

I caught a free in store concert with local alt rockers Rourourourous. Met the band. Bought an autographed copy of their new disc. Fun. Very cool! Truly, music is a universal language!



As we stepped back outside Tower Records, I was amazed by all the unique stores. Really, Japan is like one giant shopping mall everywhere you go. Beside clothing, there's lots and lots of book, collectables and music shops. Computer and electronic outlets. Game arcades, clubs, restaurants and theatres too. With a very thriving local J-Scene in fashion, music, literature and the popular arts, to say the least.

True, Japan is pricey. Reminds me of Manhattan. The low Canadian dollar didn’t help. Still, we managed to find more than our fair share of reasonable priced goodies. Mostly clothes, electronics and a few souvenirs. Were pleased we didn’t blow our travel budget -there is just so much, very cool stuff to buy!

We watched the huge flow of people and cars criss crossing the intersection at Shibuya, Tokyo's Times Square; the giant throbbing, heartbeat of Japan and the night. Then retired to the Keio’s Luxe lounge for a nightcap. Snacks. Catching up on our social media while enjoying the tasty musical menu of piped in, post war, American jazz.



Breakfast and lunch were included most days. The Keio, like our other tourist digs, provided a hearty Japanese-American breakfast buffet with our tour package. Otherwise? It'll cost about $25 US. 

The skies the limit for dinner, depending on your budget and tastes. However, western junk food or a bento box were readily available for $15 or less. Chicken, beef and pork, besides the prerequisite seafood and fish, were usually on the restaurant menus. Try a big bowl of Udon soup. It's available at kiosks everywhere for about the same price. Was great when we were hungry and on the run. 

Sandwiches were always in stock at the local convenience stores. Crusts neatly cut off, wrapped in cellophane, they cost a few dollars tops. Ditto the countless Japanese drinks and snacks from the long rows of vending machines lining the streets. We were never hungry. Or couldn't find something good to eat!

As for the big name tourist sites? Be forewarned! Tokyo was fire bombed relentlessly during World War Two. Most of the city, including the historical buildings were destroyed. Little survived intact; the original structures were made from wood! 

Tokyo's been rebuilt. Is very ultra modern. Like most Japanese cities, everything is very nice. Also very new. But most of the famous sites we visited were largely post war reconstructions. Sometimes none the better for wear and tear. 

We checked out the huge stone foundations from the old Imperial Palace. Didn’t get inside, as it was closed for a royal ceremony. But apparently it's been rebuilt a few times over the years too.



Quite frankly, we saw more Shinto Shrines and Buddha Temples than you could shake a stick at. Tosho-gu? Meiji? Asakusa?, Also, largely rebuilt. Ready perhaps for a more updated, virtual, high tech remake? 

Nonetheless, we really enjoyed the amazing scenery and sprawling, well kept grounds at each site. The countless statues. Small ponds. Exquisitely sculptured gardens. Kegon Falls nestled among the exploding autumn colours, was especially picturesque. 

It was great being outside. Enjoying the autumn colours. The mild, fall weather. Everything spotless. You won't see garbage lying about. Not even on the city streets. The trash is secured with a mesh cover, so it doesn't blow away. And folks don't dare toss their wrappers and junk on the ground. No way! 

Here's an interesting insight into the Japanese psyche. Our Tokyo tour guide explained that 80% of the Japanese practice both the Shinto and Buddhist faiths. There’s lots of cross over. Only 1% practice Christianity. But Christmas holidays and Christian weddings are very popular. 



Western style baseball is also very popular in Japan. She described it as a game where everybody knows their place. Has a specific role to fill. And must play hard to the best of their ability, for the good of the team! 

We didn't see a game while we were there, or I might’ve watched it in a different light. But there was lots of sumo wrestling and horse racing in the sports section of the Japan Times, and on TV. Hmmm. Dunno what that means. Read into it what you will!

Also interesting: Our tour guide explained why the Japanese wear protective, surgical masks in public. Think pollen. Pollution. Plus it's common courtesy, if you think you've got a cold or flu. Makes sense!

Our tour of Tokyo Bay provided a good view of the city skyline. Tokyo is very high density like most cities in Japan. It's the largest with 9.27 million people. Two thirds of the island is mountainous, so most of the people live along the coastline. In the foothills and valleys. Still, the skyscrapers weren't nearly as tall as I'd expected in Japan. Apparently because of the frequent earthquakes, typhoons and a tsunami or two. 



Driving about Tokyo anytime of the day is challenging at best. With so many people, expect massive gridlock. Even so, few motorists honk their horn! 

Public transit is definitely the best way to go. One lines up at the bus or train station, in a very orderly manner. Your ride pulls up exactly on time, stopping right at the marker on the floor where you stand. Wait patiently in single file. Go with the flow. It'll work perfectly! Don't? Everybody notices! That will not do! Better be ready for some real serious bowing! 

We got by fine, but weren’t quite ready to venture onto the Tokyo subway at rush hour. Maybe next trip!

MT FUJI


Mount Fuji sticks out visibly above the clouds as one flies into Tokyo, the first sight you see. It’s a fairly short day trip from the city, traffic permitting. The wheels of our tour bus, rolling along the corrugated “singing roads”, hum a patriotic folk tune.  We wind our way through Hakone National Park up to 5 Mile Station. Ride the nearby Komogatake Ropeway cablecar to hilltop Owakudani station. Enjoy a very spectacular "420" view. 

Tokers beware! Despite it’s many charms, Japan is not, repeat not, cannabis user friendly. Far from it. Best one pack some discreet, high grade, prescription cannabinoids instead. 




Still, we enjoy a mystical view of Mount Fuji. The exploding fall colours. From up among the clouds. Buzzing along on whatever. In the thin mountain air. 

In short, Mount Fuji is "420" par excellence! Huge. Immovable. Timeless. And serene. Ommm.

JAPANESE ALPS



From Mount Fuji, we take the bullet train to Hakone-Yumoto, famous for it’s mountain hot springs;  it’s “onsen” public baths. The modest 3 star Yumoto Fujiya Hotel, is simple but pleasant and clean. Comfy Jobito gowns are provided in our rooms, acceptable lounge wear at the hotel, or even out and about the town. 

Our English speaking tour group are mostly Australian, Indian or from the US. We go out for dinner, check out the local shops. Janet and the girls score some delightful, traditional silk tops, very reasonably priced. Head off to the hotel hot springs. 

As for the guys, I had to go it alone. An onsen has separate men’s and women’s baths. With small, heated pools. A steam room. Sauna. Open showers and stools. No clothes are allowed! Washcloths only. When not in use, put them on your head. There's more:




It was real laid back and relaxed. Great for sweating out the strain of a few, very busy daze on the road. It's uniquely Japanese. Very polite. Functional. A totally non-sexual and non judgemental experience. Calming. Cleansing. Collectively or solo, a ritual. A respite. The onsen is not to be missed! 

For the next 2 days, Janet and I continue our tour of the Japanese Alps. Visit the mountain towns of Takayama, Shirakawago and Kanazawa. We gaze out the bullet train window, speeding through deep valleys, along the breathtaking ridges and death defying cliffs. Surrounded by the bright orange, red, yellow and dark brown, alps exploding in fall colours. Lost in our reverie. A moment in time. 



We enjoy more onsen at the Hido Hotel Plaza in Kanazawa. Hold hands shopping the bustling, morning market. Walking the picturesque  Kenrokuen gardens at Kanazawa. Touring a rebuilt, ancient Samuri residence. Exploring the traditional, thatched roof grassho-zukuri huts in Shirakawago. Tucked away in a valley, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. The colourful, hillside autumn leaves forming a glorious patch work quilt. 

We catch the train to Kyoto. Check into the Miyako Hotel. Excited to awake next day, for our excursion to Hiroshima.

HIROSHIMA



Standing wordless at ground zero of the atomic age. Quietly gazing at the ruins of the Atomic Bomb Dome. Surrounded by studious Japanese children furiously taking notes. A slight breeze rustles the leaves. The grass. A hint of winter to the air. I'm at a complete loss for words.

At 8:15 am on August 6th 1945, a US B29 bomber, the Enola Gay, dropped “Little Boy”, an atomic weapon on the unsuspecting city. 140,000 women, children and died in the A-bomb flash. And it's horrific after-effects. It is said that if we put our ear to the ground, one can hear the lost souls crying in horror. 

Truth be told, I doubt I’d be able to get back up off my knees. Not anymore. Not in my autumn years. So as far as an ear to the ground goes, I'll leave that to you.



Instead, we wander the Hiroshima Peace and Memorial Park. Examine the grainy survivor photos, scorched artifacts and remains of that profoundly shocking and disturbing day. A blackened toy doll. A melted eye glass found in a skull. A picture of a woman. The patterned dress seared into her skin from the intense heat of the blast. Innocents for the most part. Heading out in the morning. During rush hour. Like we do, most of our lives. Off to school and work. 

Ka Boom!

Gone.

A Yankee visitor, in red cap, oafishly yammers away about military necessity and the like. Is greeted with stunned silence. It’s 74 years later. The Age of Trump. I shudder. Staring at all the collateral damage. Think state, sponsored terrorism instead.



We visit Miyajima hoping to see it's stately red, floating Torii gate rising above the harbour waters. But it’s covered in scaffolding, getting a face lift. We sample a traditional "Okonomia" pancake, a survivor’s recipe, dating back to the blast. Served straight up with a bottle of US styled Hiroshima Cola. Sigh. Alas.

We catch the bullet train back to Kyoto at Hiroshima station. Like much of Japan, it's ultra modern and new. Hopeful. Built atop the ruins of World War Two. 


I leaf through my newspaper. More stories of North Korean missiles, fired into the Sea of Japan. While the western world looks the other way. A timely reminder that the possibility of nuclear annihilation is never far away. 

KYOTO-OSAKA



What more can I say? We saw lots of traditional castles, residences, temples, and shrines. Mostly reconstructs. In two more lively, post modern Japanese cities, jam packed with people and stores. We visit the Kyoto Handicraft Shop, scoring lots of reasonably priced Japanese JinBei pyjamas. Traditional Yukata dressing gowns. Pants and tops. Colourful. Lose. Flowing. Excellent lounge wear for back home. Guess what everyone is getting for Christmas this year?

We toured the picture, perfect Tenryuji Temple pond garden. Enjoyed a morning stroll through the bamboo forest at Today Temple Nara Deer Park. The impossibly thin, tall trees. Ate home made apple pie. Marvelling at everything. Alone in our own world and  deeply in love.



I watch the happy, young, Japanese couples, in eye catching kimonos, being pulled around in rickshaws. Breath in the cool, refreshing mountain air. Enjoying every last minute of our trip. Each, a moment in time.

I close my eyes. Take a snapshot in my mind of the sites, the people, the sounds. A fleeting essence of Japan. Hopefully, to last a lifetime. Or until we return again.

In Kyoto, there’s a tour of  Aerial Garden Observatory. Osaka Castle.  A river boat cruise to see Nakanoshima.



Back in our room, Janet and I pack. Next day, catch a flight back to Tokyo. Transfer to our Air Canada flight. Landing back home in Toronto, many, many hours later. Tired and exhausted. But mesmerized too. In wonder. Agape. 

In heart and soul, we're still in Japan. 

David C



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