Thursday, November 24, 2011

Japan Day 5: Into the Wilds via Bullet Train! The Hakone Circuit in One Day

Fall Colors above Hakone, Japan
Blog Entry #54: Japan Day 5: Into the Wilds via Bullet Train!  The Hakone Circuit in One Day

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The view we went in search of...
For our final day in Japan, Pat and I decided to use our Japan Rail Pass to travel to the Hakone region, on the outskirts of Mt. Fuji, in hopes of getting another view of Fuji and to enjoy the mountainous region not far from Yokohama.
In the course of making the circuit, we traveled by foot, subway, bullet train, regular train, narrow-gauged switchback train, funicular, cable-car, boat, and bus – a day of travel that I really think could only be done in Japan with its amazing public transportation system!
Narrow gauge train in Hakone
Pat thought his back could hold up for one more day, so we left the ship early and had reached the town of Hakone by 9:00 am, where our circuit began. 
A fellow traveller
The Funicular train
We boarded the narrow gauge switchback train for a 40-minute ride up the valley and mountainside from Hakone to Gora – with breathtaking views of fall colors in the steep mountain valley.

The Cable Car "Ropeway" up to Owakudani
Fall Colors on the Mountainside from the Cable Car
Japanese Maple in the wild

Once we got to Gora we climbed to the top of the ridge by funicular to the summit of Soun-zan, and then by cable car to the volcanic hot spring fields of Owakudani – entering into thick clouds at the summit that precluded any views of Fuji, but did add a very mystical air to our travels.

What we thought we'd see...
.... And what we actually saw!
Hot springs at Owakudani
At Owakudani hot springs
At Owakudani we ventured out onto the Owakudani_Kojiri Nature Trail to see (and smell!) the volcanic hot spring activity up close. 
Eating Hot Springs Hard-boiled Eggs
A traditional treat for travelers here is to eat hard-boiled eggs with their shells turned black from boiling in the sulfurous waters (at 500 yen – over $6 – for 5 eggs, we simply watched others eat their eggs). 
Cable Car Conductors in front of Mt. Fuji

Then the cablecar took us down the other side of the mountain to the 
Our Pirate Ship on Ahino-ko Lake
lovely Ahino-ko Lake, where faux pirate ships ferried us down the lake.  

When the weather is clear, there are lovely views of Mt. Fuji from the lake; I took photos of the posters in the station to remind us of what we would have seen had the fall clouds not enclosed us! 

What we hoped we'd see on Ahino-ko Lake...
.... And what we saw!

After our final lunch of rice curry and noodle soup in the lakeside town of Hakone-machi, we made our way back to Yokohama via boat, train, bullet train, and subway, arriving a good hour before our on-ship time of 6:00 pm. 
Schoolkids waiting to board the Pirate Ship on Ahino-ko Lake
It was a fun, if somewhat hurried day through several parts of Japan’s lovely mountain country – and accomplished entirely by public transportation!
Traditional Drummers on the Pier in Yokohama
Drummers on Yokohama Pier
Home Sweet Home in Yokohama
As a final gift to us at departure, a group of traditional Japanese drummers gathered on the pier next to our ship at 8:00 pm and serenaded us with several minutes of vigorous drumming, with the beautiful skyline of Yokohama forming the backdrop.  By midnight we were pulling out of Yokohama, heading east for our 18-day trip across the Pacific.  Next stop: Thanksgiving Day on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Yokohama Skyline at Night from the Pier 
Japanese Maples above Hakone, Japan

Japan Day 4: Zen Meditation in Kamakura

Blog Entry #53: Japan Day 4: Zen Meditation in Kamakura

Monday, November 14, 2011

Monday morning commuters in Tokyo
Monday morning in Tokyo saw us start off with a traditional Japanese breakfast of green tea, fish and tofu soup with Risa and her mom, and then a reimmersion into the Tokyo subway and train system at rush hour to make our way to Yokohama where the ship had docked the night before.  The Japanese train and subway systems truly are amazing, landing us within a few blocks of the harbor and an easy walk to the new, modern port terminal.
Engaku-ji Temple grounds in Kamakura
Fall Leaves in Temple gate
I had an FDP trip leaving at noon that day, so we had just enough time to unpack and shower before I headed out again (Pat’s back had seized up our last day in Hiroshima, so he stayed on ship to nurture it a bit).  I headed to the nearby city of Kamakura with 22 shipmates and two guides from the Kanagawa Systematized Goodwill Guide Club (picture retired Japanese Rotarians) to visit a Zen Buddhist temple and participate in zazen – Zen Buddhist seated meditation.
Gate into the Engaku-ji Zen Temple
Our train deposited us directly in front of Engaku-ji, one of the five main Rinzai Zen Temples in Kamakura, dating to 1282.  Set in and among groves of tall cedar trees, the grounds are beautifully maintained and one feels far from the rush of Tokyo and Yokohama when you step through the gates.
Engaku-ji Temple in Kamakura

[It was here that I had one of my more comical moments in a Japanese temple.  Noticing a small vertical sign near the Buddha in one of the side temples that had lovely Japanese calligraphy, I asked our guide what it meant.  “Do not climb on the railing” she replied.  So much for a profound message from the Buddha!]
Archers at the Engaku-ji Temple

As we were leaving the Temple grounds to walk to the monastery, three of the monks were doing a session of traditional archery.  It was fascinating to watch the careful attention to each step of the process, a very deliberate step-by-step process that was later mired in the tea ceremony we participated in.
Preparing the Tea Ceremony
Altar for Tea Ceremony
Buddhist Monk at Zazen Meditation
Room for zazen meditation
From here we walked along the railroad line until we came to a nearby Buddhist monastery with carefully tended grounds.  We entered the monastery buildings where our hosts first took us through a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, explaining how it had evolved as part of the Buddhist mediation process as a way to keep the monks away through the long hours of zazen.  Then one of the monks from the monastery took us through about 30 minutes of zazen – sitting meditation, explaining the process ahead of time, and then leading us through it.  Despite the growing protest of my achy knees (and lack of yoga practice for several months), it was amazingly calming to sit together for meditation practice.

Following the zazen meditation, we had the chance to walk through the beautiful garden grounds of the monastery where several workers were meticulously pruning the trees -- giving the same, careful deliberate attention to each pine needle that we had seen in the archery practice and the tea ceremony.  The rich blend of Buddhism, Shinto and Confucianism seem to infuse each of these traditional arts, reflecting in a rich, simple harmony in each setting.
We made it back to the ship by 6:00 pm – in time to join Pat for another lovely dinner on the deck with the Yokohama skyline behind us.

Japan Day 3: Tokyo with Risa Shirade

Blog Entry #52: Japan Day 3: Tokyo with Risa Shirade

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Mt. Fuji over rice fields and factories from bullet train
Fields & Mountains from Bullet Train
After our two days in Hiroshima, Pat and I caught the bullet train to Tokyo (400+ miles in under 5 hours!) for a long-awaited reunion with Risa Shirade, a former student of mine in Environmental Studies at the University of Montana.  On the way we were treated to some beautiful views of Mt. Fuji, Japan’s revered volcano and highest mountain – the only time in our 5 days she peered through the clouds.
Risa Shirade & Dan at Edo Castle
I first met Risa several years ago in my Nature and Society class at UM, when she shyly approached me early in the semester and asked if I could please speak a little more slowly in class!  [I did my best, but I’m afraid I still rattle away in class.] 
Risa & Pat picnic in the Imperial Park, Tokyo
Risa went on to become one of my advisees and took several more classes with me.  When she graduated in 2009, it was a delight to meet her mother who had traveled to Montana for the occasion.
At the Imperial Palace with Risa Shirade
Risa met us at the Tokyo Station, and we picked up sandwiches at a nearby shop and then walked several blocks to the enormous park and plaza adjacent to the Imperial Palace where we had a picnic and enjoyed the reemergence of the sun. 
Moat around the Imperial Palace
Tokyo skyline reflected in moat
The Imperial Palace grounds are home to Japan’s imperial family, the longest continuous family of emperors in the world.  From here Risa walked us through the government sector where many of the different national ministry buildings are located. 

With Nuclear Power Protesters
64 days of protesting...
In front of the Economics Ministry we encountered a group of protestors of nuclear power, a particularly sensitive topic in Japan now in the wake of the tsunami-induced disaster at the Fukushima Plant north of Tokyo.  This group had been set up in front of the Economics building for 64 days, petitioning an audience to push for Japan closing all its nuclear power plants.  Fukushima was on the front page of the news while we were in Tokyo, as for the first time the press were allowed to tour the plant, 8 months after the disaster.
Contemplating the Tokyo Subway System
We then had our first experience of the famous – and at times bewildering – Tokyo subway system, as Risa guided us out to the Asakusa neighborhood, home to the well-known Senso-ji Temple. 
The Kaminarimon gate at the Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo
Nakamise-dori street
Sampling the Rice Crackers!
We entered through the impressive Kaminarimon [Thunder] gate, and on to the Nakamise-dori, a long walkway covered with every imaginable trinket and food is available in a crowded row of market stalls – no quiet, reverential approach to this temple!  We lingered long enough to sample some rice crackers dipped in soy sauce – Yum!
Entrance to the Senso-ji Temple
The temple dates to 682 when legend has it that two local fishermen found a golden image of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, in the nearby river, the Sumida-gawa. 
Purifying before entering the Senso-ji Temple
Boys tying their fortunes
We participated in several local customs, from waving smoke from a large incense cauldron over us, to shaking a box to extract a numbered stick that led to a box with your fortune in it (mine was #26, which Risa assured me was a good fortune.  It promised that “Thousands of soldiers will obey you without failure to the order and dignity of the General,” and “The guest you wait for will come soon… It is good to start a trip… Marriage and employment are all well.”  Reassuring words indeed!)

Altar inside the Senso-ji Temple
Rickshaws outside the Senso-ji Temple

Starbucks in Tokyo!
Following our time at the Temple, we stopped long enough at the local Starbucks to get rejuvenated with tea – and to notice the Christmas decorations already up in the stores!
Dinner Okinawan style, complete with SPAM
Soon it was time for supper, and Risa introduced us to a new ethnic food: Okinawan!  The dishes seemed a variation on Japanese styles with some excellent tempura and an intriguing tofu made from peanuts rather than soy.  The most curious element, however, were long slices of SPAM layered through several dishes – SPAM apparently now is an Okinawan staple since the occupation of the U.S. military introduced it following World War II.
Makosa-sama & Risa in their Tokyo apartment
Following dinner we made our way by subway and bus to Risa’s neighborhood where we would spend the night in the cozy apartment she shares with her mother, Makosa.  Sharing tea and talking with Risa’s mom was one of the highlights of our time in Japan. 
Risa grew up in Sendai with her mother and grandmother – the northern city and region that were devastated by the earthquake and tsunami last March.  That day while Risa experienced the quake on the 8th floor of her office building in Tokyo, her mother was visiting her grandmother at her grandmother’s house in Sendai.  Severely shaken by the strong quake, they knew they were at risk for a tsunami, and since the grandmother’s house had a 3rd floor, Risa’s mom quickly gathered several of the elderly neighbors from their homes and led them to the 3rd floor.  Her quick thinking saved many lives, and the tsunami did indeed come, inundating the house to the top of the 2nd floor, and destroying many of the surrounding lower homes. 
Makosa-sama, Dan & Risa
But that was only the beginning of their trials.  It was another 4 days until Risa’s mother and all the elderly people she had gathered were rescued, and the weather soon turned wintry, with snow falling.  They went 4 days without electricity, heat, food, or water, Risa’s mom working desperately to keep the elderly people trapped with her alive.  All this time Risa was in Tokyo, not knowing whether her family members had survived – in fact, it took a full week for her to reestablish contact with her mom. 
It was amazing and sobering to hear Risa’s mother recount this story – that ended with a successful rescue and her being interviewed by the BBC about the event.  While Risa’s mother and grandmother and neighbors survived, many in the area did not; over 20,000 people perished in the tsunami, including four of Risa’s relatives.  The library where Risa’s mother worked was destroyed, so she has relocated to Tokyo where she now lives with Risa and has found work in another library.
Risa's mother, Makosa-sama, serves Risa and Pat a Japanese breakfast
Risa’s mother spoke eloquently, if quietly, about how this experience has caused her to reevaluate her life, and what gives her meaning.  She tells of how she initially thought they would all die in the tsunami, but then she decided stubbornly that she would not die at this moment, and turned her attention to keeping the elderly people alive.  Pat and I just listened quietly as she told us this amazing story of courage and determination.
Traditional Japanese bedroom with futons on straw mat floor
And then it was time for bed – our first night in a traditional Japanese home!  Out came the floor futons and bedding and Pat and I had one of the two main rooms to ourselves.  We slept soundly that night, grateful for a reunion with Risa, and the survival of her mother and grandmother.