We began our Asia leg of the trip in May 2012. We are using Travellerspoint.com to share our steps with you.
We also traced our footsteps in Australia and Europe. You can find those in the tag cloud.
In total, we’ve travelled roughly equivalent to
circling the earth 3.1 times
This is a wonderful site to help you record distances and share your itineraries with others. It’s super easy to navigate and you can add your own comments as well as use destination information the site provides for reference.
As seems to happen to me far more often than I expect, I find myself writing this note in arrears. It’s been two weeks since Elizabeth and I returned to the USofA (you know, the country with all the political ads) and I’m just now sitting down to write about our last week in Asia. The last month certainly has been a whirlwind, however.
When last we spoke, Eli and I were in Chiang Mai, Thiland, where we enjoyed a leisurely three day cooking lesson with our favorite teacher, Yui. We both love Thai food, so we decided to make a return trip to “refresh” our “skills” at A Lot Of Thai cooking school. This time Eli recorded each lesson, so those of us who are visual learners can go back and remember exactly how that Pad See Ew came out so perfectly.
After our Buddha bellies were full we took a direct flight to Kuala Lumpur to see some old friends of mine from Dubai. It was a quick stop, just a day and a half, but it was great to see them. Jean-Marc, Maya, and Will (fresh off a flight from Houston – thanks Will!) were kind enough to spend Saturday night with us and show us around their part of town. They work for a Malaysian company that had recently opened a KidZania franchise in KL, and we were lucky enough to get a tour on Sunday of the new park. (For those of you who are unfamiliar with the KidZania concept, give ‘em a Google. A little bird tells me one is coming soon to the Chicago area…) Unfortunately this is the time of year when the inhabitants of Java (Javaians? Javites? Javorians?) clear their fields by burning the leftover stumps, and all the smoke comes straight east into Malaysia. The smog was somewhat alleviated by our discovery of a Garrett’s Popcorn shop in the mall under the Petronas Towers. (For those of you unfamiliar with Garrett’s, get on a plane right now and fly to Chicago. Get a bag of Chicago Mix and try to put it down before it’s finished.)
When you travel with someone for as long as we have been, both people learn to make compromises to make the trip a success. Our next stop was Singapore, just a short distance from KL. You can fly, which only takes about 30 minutes in the air but then you have to hassle with getting to/from the airports. You can drive, but we didn’t rent a car and were leery about the busses for the four hour trip. Or you can take a train, which takes the longest but at $20 per person for 1st class seemed like a good idea at the time. Elizabeth knows my love of trains, so she compromised and agreed to spend a day headed south through by rail through the jungle. When I went to purchase the tickets I discovered that we could secure a private sleeper car (with its own bathroom!) for only about $10 more, so I was excitedly looking forward to the trip.
All of the reviews had warned travelers to bring their own lunch, as the food trolley on the train left something to be desired. Elizabeth found a sandwich place in the KL Sentral train station, so we both got a couple sandwiches before boarding. I had found a grocery store the night before, so we were well stocked with crackers, chips, some fruit, and of course a small package of cookies. When they called our train, we excitedly (maybe not “we”, but “me”) headed to the platform and found our car.
My excitement was soon tempered by the discovery that our 1st class sleeper car was, literally, a sleeper car. The same train makes the overnight run from Singapore to KL, and we discovered all too late that the Malay National Railroad doesn’t bother to change the beds back into seats for the daytime trip back south. Nope, you get to lay down and sleep all day on your way to Singapore. Ok, fine. Adapt, adopt, and improve, right? When the conductor came by Elizabeth turned on her “cutes” and asked if he could change the cabin to seats. His reply, “No. There is no porter on the train. There is no key to lock the beds,” was not exactly what we were looking for. (The “key” is an allen wrench type tool that is absolutely necessary to engage the locking mechanism that keeps the rather heavy top bunk retracted into the ceiling.) Elizabeth said, “But it’s daytime. We’re not going to lay down and sleep for the next seven hours,” to which to conductor’s response was a simple shrug of the shoulders. Elizabeth, “Well what if we paid you?”
Apparently the word “paid” translates very well, as an assistant conductor quickly ran off and returned shortly with the “key” to remove the beds. The lad certainly gets an A for effort, however it was readily apparent that he had never used a “key” before and had no idea what he was doing. Between the two of us, he and I eventually managed to get the top bunk retracted and engage the locking mechanism. 50% success so far. Then we figured out the lower bunk slips sideways into the wall of the carriage, leaving the two (rather dirty and crumb filled) seats facing each other. Of course only one of the seats had a functioning head rest, so after a 10 minute Keystone Cop routine of trying to reattach the errant headrest we both concluded it was good and truly broken. Our helper left at this point while Elizabeth and I removed the sheets from the lower bunk to use as seat covers/lice barriers. Ok, I figured, there’s our little adventure for the day.
As I stood pondering what to do about a missing headrest, the train hit a rough spot causing the car to sway a bit more than usual. This in turn caused the spring loaded top bunk to break free of its bondage and come crashing down on anything in its way, namely the top of my head. It hurt. A lot. I distinctly remember using every ounce of energy I had to keep from completely losing my cool. There was a kick to the door and a few loud, guttural noises (think Tarzan meets Frankenstein meets Tonto, and they’re all REALLY mad) and much gnashing of teeth. (Elizabeth has a different recollection of the event: “That’s the maddest I’ve ever seen you. You totally freaked out.”) When yet another conductor guy came by, I tried to explain in my best pantomime/pidgin Malay that me getting hit on the head was absolutely unacceptable. He didn’t get it. When the main conductor came by he seemed to understand what had happened and offered to try to put the bed back up again. “No way,” I said. “It will just happen again.”
Ok, I figured. There’s our little adventure for the day.
About four hours into the trip, the cabin starts getting a bit warmer. Then it gets a lot warmer. I go out in the hallway where our neighbors seem to all have the same problem. Too much heat, not enough conditioned air. Somebody goes and fetches the conductor, who gives another shrug and tells him we can switch to any open seat. Being an American, I felt it my duty to find the electrical panel on our car and reset the A/C switch. Alas, my efforts went for naught as the little light labeled “compressor fault” was blinking the entire time. Sigh. So for the last hour we moved up to the 2nd class sleeper car (no seats, all beds, all the time) where at least the air was working.
And then we got to Singapore. Oh what a breath of fresh air. Oh the British civility of it all. Oh how clean. Oh how spit and phlegm free. (Spitting in public caries a possible sentence of lashes with a cane, assuming you are an able bodied man under the age of 50.) We quickly found a cab and headed south, to the resort island of Sentosa.
Singapore was a British Crown Colony, similar to Hong Kong, which gained its independence when England gave all the Malay kingdoms sovereignty after WWII. Shortly after the formation of Malaysia, the central government decided they didn’t want Singapore to be part of their new country and kicked them out. Thus, (according to something I read online), Singapore become the first nation in modern history to gain its independence against its will. Clearly a great decision, as Singapore’s port is reportedly the 2nd largest on the planet so between shipping, banking, and tourism there’s really not much revenue coming in. (Sarcasm off.)
A several years ago Singapore decided to convert Sentosa, an old military base, to a sort of Disney-esque resort. There are golf courses, beaches, a Coney Island-style boardwalk, and resort hotels. About 10 years ago they decided to go all in and build a Universal Studios theme park along with a huge casino and several more hotels. The result is very Orlando/Vegas like, and was similar enough to those places to make me very confused for a moment that evening when it became apparent that the bump on the head from earlier had caused a minor concussion. It hit all at once, when we were walking along the boardwalk and I became dizzy and nauseous and had an overwhelming since of Déjà vu. The part of my brain that was still working knew that I had never been to Singapore, but the part of my brain that was concussed kept telling me “Dude! You were just in a place EXACTLY LIKE THIS!” The result was the immediate need to sit down on the nearest piece of earth and an overwhelming desire to punch the conductor on the train.
Anyway, fortunately the feeling passed and by the next morning I felt well enough to go explore. Elizabeth and I headed out, as usual seeking out the best in local food. We had seen an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show taped in Singapore, and Elizabeth was intrigued by the local Food Markets. Think American “food truck” establishments, but all semi-permanent in giant open-air food courts in each neighborhood. We sought out the specialty, boiled chicken and rice, and also explored some fresh squeezed juices (just point at the fruit you want and they liquefy it) and something called “carrot cake.” For the record, Singapore style carrot cake is NOTHING like American style carrot cake. It contains neither carrots nor cake, but rather a sort of rice flour dumpling pan fried in either light or dark soy sauce with a few other goodies thrown in.
Our all day bus pass got us to many of the sights, including Orchard Road (think 5th AVE in NYC) and the Raffles Hotel – a classic turn of the century British Colonial hotel ala The Peninsula in Hong Kong. (When we win the lottery I want to put on a bow tie, top hat, and monocle and visit all the great old hotels.) We also got to spend a little time with our friends Sarah and Kaiyo from Japan, who were also vacationing in Singapore at the same time. They got us into the Sands Resort (and casino and convention center) for a look at the absolutely stunning rooftop infinity pool. Yes, you too can face your fear of heights by swimming right up to the edge of the 56th floor and looking out over the city. Oh, and did I mention the deck spans three adjacent towers? So at some points you’re swimming over nothing but air. You really have to place your trust in those engineers, eh?
The four of us went out for dinner in China Town, where we found another Food Market (in fact, the one spotlighted in Bourdain’s show) and explored a bit more before turning in for the night. The next day I joined our friends at Universal Studios (you didn’t expect me to pass up a theme park visit, right?) while Elizabeth enjoyed the pool at the hotel.
All too soon it was time to leave Singapore for Hong Kong, which we saved for last because we were able to cash in airline miles for the tickets home. By this point we were both pretty exhausted, and the late June heat and humidity of Hong Kong was starting to wear us down. We did manage to hike up the side of a mountain to the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas (yep, you can count them, they’re all there) and hit up a night market in Tsim Sha Tsui, topped off by the obligatory visit to Hong Kong Disneyland. Really we just tried to savor our last few days and hours living and traveling abroad, cementing the peaceful state of mind that travel can bring. We both realize how fortunate we are to be able to fulfill our dreams, and eternally grateful for the experience. After nine months on the road, we’re also both ready to have a place to call “home” again and settle down for a while.
In the states, massage is a relaxing and usually pricey luxury. However, in many Asian countries you can easily get a massage for less than $10 an hour. I’ve been on the road for almost 9 months, traveling with my backpack and taking the long way around, my muscles are weary from the daily grind of being on the move every day. So I was really looking forward to our visit to Chiang Mai, Thailand for some pampering.
Thai massage is solicited all over the tourist track in Thailand. Three years ago I was here and remember my fondest memory being the $5/hour massage on the most beautiful, quiet Thai beach. Today, I had a couple of hours to spare in between visiting Wat (temples) visits. With so many shops set up to give massages it’s hard to decide which one to try. I ask some fellow female travelers who have been in Chiang Mai longer than me and they suggest the Women’s Prison Massage Center.
I had read about the prison massage center in Lonely Planet so I was even more interested with then girls told me about their experience. “Is it actually inside the prison?” I asked. “Oh, no” the girls replied, “It’s next to the prison.” I double checked the reviews on Tripadvisor.com and confirmed that it was a clean and legit.
The prison offers 2 different kinds of massage, each costing less than $7
When my tuk tuk pulled up to the entrance of the massage studio a small Thai women greeted me on the steps. “Would you like a Thai massage?” she asked warmly. “Yes,” I replied shyly since I didn’t know the standard massage-studio-at-a-prison etiquette. She pointed at the place where I should leave my shoes outside on the stoop. I was hesitate. I had a nice pair of Chacos, my only pair of shoes of solid all- purpose traveling shoes, and I wanted to make sure they would still be there when I got out.
I looked at all the other shoes lined up and realized I needed to let this bit of control go and follow the pack. I left the shoes on the stoop.
I was escorted inside to the air-conditioned room where 4 beds were set up for massage. It was quiet, I was the only patron at the time. As it was noted in the guidebook and from my new travel friends, it was a very clean room. I was given pajama like clothes to put on while the petite Thai women (excon?) prepared a foot bath. After I had on my massage clothes (not prison orange or B/W strips; but a white top and blue bottom) I was asked to sit down as she washed my feet. When my feet where clean, she pointed to the massage table. It wasn’t the most relaxing atmosphere but I did see a huge benefit to being here, I was helping women who would be transitioning back to civilian life within the next 6 months. She now has a trade and is employable. So without the privacy, the massage studio is a huge room with multiple beds, and the lack of soothing music, I mentally prepared for my Thai massage.
Thai massage is unique to what I normally get back in the states. Thai massage consists of full physical contact between you and the therapist. There is pulling and pushing and adjustments that have your body contorting in unlikely positions. It’s interactive and not at relaxing enough to fall asleep. Sometimes it’s painful!
I was so busy thinking about the pain as my muscles were being tenderized that I forgot to think about the woman whose hands (and body at times) were working on me. Perhaps it was just a misunderstanding that led her to jail, like a Martha Stewart crime, surely my therapist wasn’t a strangler!
While I was having my massage, other patrons were brought in and given a table near me. The room was quiet until the front door opened and the tuk tuk drivers were heard whizzing by.
Overall, it was a great massage in an unlikely place. I paid for my one hour massage (about $5) with the cashier, left a tip in the jar, and found my shoes waiting for me on the stoop.
One (un)fortunate side effect of globalization is a sort of homogenization of cultures around the world. When there’s a McDonalds or a Starbucks sitting in the airport, it’s hard to tell where exactly you are unless you can find a menu in the local language. Sure, McDonald’s might have a Veggie Curry Burger (interesting) or a McArab (very interesting and never tried it), but in a pinch the cheeseburger is always a cheeseburger. We are thrilled whenever we’re able to put ourselves in a place that really feels like we’re traveling – away from the golden arches of the American Embassy and that caffeine infused mermaid. When we landed in Denpasar Bali, we had that feeling immediately.
Jet lag tends to intensify this “real travel” effect, and we certainly had our fair share as our passage back to the southern hemisphere was compliments of a Star Alliance mileage ticket that required us to take a red-eye from Tokyo to Bangkok, then a four hour layover at BKK, then another four hour flight to Bali. I can’t sleep on planes, but fortunately Elizabeth was able to doze for a bit and we found a pair of La-Z-Boy loungers in Bangkok where we were able to have a little snooze. Indonesia is a huge country consisting of hundreds if not thousands of islands, but Bali is unique among them with its Hindu majority (as opposed to Muslim in the rest of the nation.) Elilzabeth Gilbert’s book Eat, Pray, Love is partially set on the island and that had initially peaked our Elizabeth’s interest in seeing what the place was really like.
Ironically, Gilbert’s book (and the resulting movie starring Julia Roberts) has been both a blessing and a curse to this tiny island. For decades, Bali’s mainstays have been tourism and export of local sculpture, jewelry, paintings, and other handicrafts. Their peaceful world was rocked in 2000 and again in 2002 when malcontents from other islands decided they didn’t like the Westerners (mostly Aussies) who liked to party it up on Bali’s south beaches and detonated bombs around popular nightspots. The tourism business instantly dropped like a rock and did not recover until Eat, Pray, Love hit the scene. The popularity of that work brought the tourists back in droves – many more than the sleepy island had previously known. The result is horrible traffic in and around the main city of Denpasar, tons of litter, and a Bali that’s a bit more commercialized than it was 10 years ago. Of course, the renewed income has been a good thing for the residents (and the government doesn’t mind the new tax base either.)
With all that in mind, we weren’t sure what to expect from Bali. If you search for accommodations online you generally come up with the Hiltons or the Four Seasons of the world, each with their private beach or gated compound that shuts out the “undesirable” element. While the prospect of a private plunge pool overlooking the ocean certainly is appealing on some level, Elizabeth knew that she wanted something a bit more authentic. After weeks of searching, she found the Swallow Guest House.
Located about 30 minutes east of Ubud, the main cultural and artistic hub of the island, the Swallow House is a sort of joint venture between a local man (Wayan) and his family and a woman from British Columbia (Suzan – who visited here several years ago “before the movie” and fell in love with it). Their communication was excellent leading up to our arrival, and Wayan met us as promised after we cleared customs. The airport scene was our first clue that we were someplace “different,” as the orderly rows of taxi cabs from Japan were replaced by crowds of touts and drivers (who each just happened to know the “best” place to stay on the island and promised everything from healing powers to the prettiest girls.) Thankfully we had Wayan to guide us to the waiting car and we quickly started to make our way out of the dense city.
As I mentioned earlier, traffic was a bear and it took us about two hours to get from the airport to the Guest House. Along the way, Wayan pointed out different sights, commented on life in Bali, and answered our many questions about food, religion, and anything else we thought of. The first thing you notice is that there are roughly one billion motorbikes on the roads in Bali. We learned that cars are very expensive to purchase (all imported), not to mention the cost of fuel and maintenance. Most Balinese own the little motor scooters and they zip in and out of traffic with either A) a firm belief that their good karma will protect them from an almost certain accident, or B) the kind of fearlessness that I’ve only seen in young children careening down a ski slope at 100 miles an hour. Either way, the roads are narrow and you have to compete with trucks, buses, dogs, and the occasional chicken or rooster.
As we rose out of the bustle that is Ubud, we started to leave the noise and chaos behind and entered dense jungles, vast ravines, and endless rice patties. Wayan explained that rice is life here, and one of the most important Hindu deities is the rice goddess. Along with the water goddess the two pack a powerful one-two punch at prayer time. We soon rounded a corner and Wayan said “home sweet home” as he pointed to a beautiful two story brick house literally in the middle of dozens of rice fields. The Swallow House is built on “two ares” of land (about 10 x 20 meters) that his family used to farm, and in fact his extended family still tends to the adjacent plots. The original plot was to build a nesting site for the native swallows, who’s nests are the key ingredient in the (very costly and very profitable) Chinese dish “Bird’s Nest Soup.” Along with Suzan they built the house, but alas the swallows all disappeared. Plan B was thus devised, and the roost was renovated into a two unit bed and breakfast. Advertised as “real Bali,” it surely did not disappoint.
We soon met Susan and Wayan’s wife Putri, who immediately filled our hungry stomachs with Balinese delights. Putri handles the cooking, and we immediately fell in love with her tasty, fresh and overall simply delightful food. (Our personal favorite may have been the fresh tuna wrapped in lemon grass, spices, and banana leaves and steamed. Wow.) The Guest House is beautifully designed and built by local craftsmen, and has enough comforts from home to satisfy a couple of gringos like ourselves. The sound of the aqueduct (called the Subak – recently named a UNESCO World Heritage Site) gently flowing past the house is mixed with the occasional cow or rooster, the local temple holding a ceremony, and at night the symphony of insects and frogs that provide the soundtrack to our holiday.
Wayan is an excellent tour guide, starting out teaching himself English as a kite salesman on the beaches south of here as a child. He has now graduated to guest house host, and took us on a day long trip around this part of Bali. The whole island is filled with talented people, and each village has its own specialty. We stopped at a silversmith where Eli picked up a pair of sterling earrings, went up to the top of a mountain overlooking the adjacent volcano for lunch, (last major eruption about 50 years ago, but the lava flow was still very evident on the valley floor below), to a spice and coffee (and chocolate!) plantation, a basket maker, and a temple founded on the site of a holy spring. (I even got to wear a Sarong to cover up my “immodest” bare legs. If you’ve seen my legs then you’ll agree it was for the best.)
By far our favorite day was a simple “trek” around Wayan’s neighborhood. We packed our knapsacks and wandered through rice fields, waterfalls, forests, his brother’s Koi fish hatchery (apparently the whole family is rather enterprising!), got to meet his mother and father, son and daughter, brother and aunt. To top it all off, he graciously invited us into his home where Putri cooked us another unbelievable dinner. The evening’s epilogue was a ride back to the Swallow House on the back of Wayan’s motorbike on narrow country roads and past a temple that was REALLY hopping with a ceremony that night. Not a bad way to spend a day, eh?
On our previous trips to Japan, we’ve been largely confined to Tokyo, Yokohama, and Yokosuka. While there’s certainly plenty to do and see to fill a lifetime in just those areas (it’s estimated that around 40 million people live in the greater Tokyo area), this trip we finally felt like we had enough time to spread out wings a bit and explore a little bit of Japan we have never visited. In addition to Hiroshima, we were also fortunate to spend time in Sano (just north of Tokyo), the ancient capital of Kyoto, and Mt. Fuji.
After a brief couple of days at the Tokyo Disney Resort (of course), we got to spend a day with an old high school buddy of mine, Jason Kelly. Jason is a writer and moved from LA to Japan about 10 years ago. He lives in a town called Sano, which is about halfway between Tokyo and a national park. (Since Jason and I grew up around Rocky Mountain National Park, this is a natural fit for him.) Jason was kind enough to pick us up at the train station, and proceeded to give us a wonderful tour of this region of Japan.
We first visited what may be Japan’s only winery, owned by a gentleman from the US but operated on a daily basis by a non-profit group that supports education and jobs for mentally handicapped Japanese people. The winery sits on at the foot of a beautiful hill, with the vines terraced all the way up the side. We drove to the top and got some beautiful pictures before heading down to the main building for lunch at their excellent restaurant and a sample of their fine product.
Our second stop was at a flower park near Jason’s home. A type of botanical garden, these sorts of parks are apparently very popular in Japan. This particular park’s claim to fame are several giant Wisteria plants, each lovingly tended by the staff and grown into a massive canopy. Unfortunately for us, our timing was a bit off and the Wisteria were just past their bloom. There were however many other varieties of plants and flowers, including a lovely rose garden. We struck up a couple of conversations with the locals (helps that after 10 years Jason is now fluent in Japanese), and managed to learn that the name for “Petunia” is the same in Japanese or English!
Before dinner, we took a beautiful drive up a hillside overlooking the town and went on a short hike up to the Buddhist temple on the top. We experienced our first earthquake of the trip when the windows on the temple seemed to rattle just a little too much to be caused by the wind, but otherwise it was imperceptible. The day was clear and sunny though, making for some great views of the valley below.
Perhaps our favorite part of the day was dinner at a local Izakaya, a sort of Japanese pub. Again fortunate to be with a tour guide who knew the owners, we were treated to a series of small plates with delights such as grilled asparagus wrapped in bacon, yakitori, and some sort of delicious cheese fondue type dish. As an added bonus, the drunk gentlemen at the next table seemed to take a liking to us and generously donated about half a bottle of sake to our cause on their way out of the restaurant! It was a memorable day and it was great to catch up with Jason again after so many years. (I promise it won’t be another 15 before we see each other again…)
Our second side trip was to Kyoto. Much like the Eurail Pass, Japan Rail offers an unlimited train ticket for tourists visiting the country. Train travel within Japan is incredibly efficient, covering almost anywhere you might want to travel and nearly always exactly on time. It is, however, also very expensive. A one way ticket on the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto is about a two hour trip but will run you upwards of $150. So for about the cost of a round trip ticket just to Kyoto, we were able to purchase a seven day unlimited JR pass which got us to Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, and around Tokyo for a day. (And those of you who know me know about my little fascination with trains – the bullet trains are AWESOME. Clean, comfortable, and super fast. Apparently they’re talking about a maglev train to Osaka – super extra fast, runs on magnets. Wow.)
Kyoto was the capital of Japan prior to Tokyo and was largely untouched by WWII, leaving intact vast historical districts and roughly one million Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. We spent four nights in Kyoto, using it as a sort of base of operations for other day trips around the region. One day had rather lousy weather predicted, so we took a trip into Osaka and poked around enjoying the food district, a trip to see Universal Studios Japan (just walked around their version of CityWalk and went up to the gates), and stumbled on to Elizabeth’s favorite – IKEA. (Pronounced “EE(as in “knee”)-Kay-Ahh in Japanese.) Another day was reserved for a trip to Hiroshima, discussed in a previous blog. And a couple of days were spent in Kyoto itself.
In addition to the aforementioned temples and shrines, Kyoto is also known for one of the few remaining Geisha districts in Japan. Geishas are revered for their artistry and skill in entertaining. A Geisha’s evening might include conversation, dance, making tea, or singing songs to her clients at a traditional Japanese tea house. Despite any stereotypes to the contrary, Geishas are not ladies of the night or women of ill repute. Sadly, it is a bit of a dying art form and just recently one of the Geisha districts in Kyoto closed due to a lack of business. On an evening walk, we strolled through the remaining district and (along with about 100 other tourists) did get to see an actual Geisha on her way to an appointment. (As an aside, the district itself was absolutely gorgeous. The wooden tea houses are mostly over 100 years old and the architecture is outstanding. We really got a feel for the history of the city.)
While in Kyoto we also got to spend a day with Johnny Hill Walker. Johnny is an 81 year old Kyoto native who gives walking tours of the less touristy parts of his hometown. Although his age has forced him to drop from three tours a week to just a single trek, Johnny still was able to lead us on a six hour walk through the backstreets and little known sights of the city. (And as he mentioned, don’t call him “Johnny Walker,” that’s somebody else…) Johnny’s tour was about 30 strong, consisting of Americans, Australians, and Europeans, and we were able to get a sense of the passion he feels for his home. He took us to a local Buddhist temple that’s not as frequented by tourists. There, he gave us the best explanation I’ve heard about the differences between Buddhism and Shinto. It’s a bit too complex to go into here, but to some degree Japanese Buddhists are concerned with one’s ancestors and what happens after death, while Shinto deals largely with aspects of the living such as health, wealth, intelligence, etc. The general sense we got from Johnny and our other Japanese friends is that most people here freely move between Buddhism, Shinto, and Christianity depending on which religion suits their current needs the best. As Jason told us, ask a Japanese person about religion and the answer you’ll get is: “Hmmm. Religion. Yes. Cultural differences. A great mystery.”
Johnny also took us through shops and districts where traditional paper fans, pottery, and other handicrafts are handmade in people’s homes. The pride and excellent craftsmanship was evident in all the work we saw. We enjoyed a tea break with traditional cookies and stops at a Buddhist cemetery and at least three Shinto shrines (I may have lost count) before ending the tour in eastern Kyoto. That evening we enjoyed Okonomiyaki, a sort of pancake (it’s round, mostly flat, and partially made from batter so that’s about as close of a translation as I can get,) made with cabbage, sprouts, pork, and in our case Udon noodles. The restaurant was filled with locals and no gringos, which we usually take as a good sign so we gave it a shot. The meal is cooked in their kitchen, but kept hot on a grill in the center of the table when it’s brought out. It was delicious, and in fact we tried two other variations in Hiroshima (includes fried egg on top) and in Tokyo (have no idea what was in it, our friends ordered for us!)
As always, there was too much to see and too little time, which hopefully will put Kyoto on a future itinerary of ours. For this trip, we needed to get back to Tokyo to see our friend Hiro before heading off on a one day tour of Mt. Fuji.
Mt. Fuji is a volcano, and perhaps the most iconic image of Japan. The mountain was historically revered as a God, and even today is respectfully referred to as Fujisan – “Mr. Fuji.” The mountain is also notoriously difficult to see, especially in any season except for the cool dry air of winter. On our way back from Kyoto, we were passing just to the south of the mountain and had planned on stopping off and taking a side trip to Hakone, a small mountain town with great views of Fuji. The weather did not cooperate however, and a low overcast sky nixed our plans. Through our friend Sarah, we were able to book a bus tour organized by the US Naval base at Yokosuka. This itinerary took us around the north side of the mountain, including stops at a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, and even at the “5th Station” halfway up the mountain. Our fingers were crossed for at least a glimpse of the famous snow covered peak.
We awoke at the early hour of 4:30 AM in order to be on base for a 5:30 AM departure. (That’s “0530 hours” for all you military and/or Disney types.) Despite the shock of an alarm clock after several weeks of setting our own schedule, and the early sunrise (It was already up when the alarm went off. They don’t call this the “land of the rising sun” for nothin’…), we managed to make it on to the bus with time to spare. Our first leg only took about 90 minutes, and our hopes were high as the sun was shining through a clear blue sky. We got our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji from the highway, and I shared some of the obvious excitement the tour guide exhibited. We’ve been fortunate on our travels to see a great many icons, but it still gives me a rush to see something in person that you’ve read about your entire life. For me, Mt. Fuji ranked right up there with Parliament, the Pyramids of Giza, and the Statue of Liberty.
Our first stop was at a Buddhist temple dedicated to world peace. This particular temple has a spectacular view of Fuji from roughly the east side, and Prime Minister Nehru of India (after whom the jacket was named) even presented the monks with a sacred relic of the Buddha himself which now resides in the top of the tallest spire. The scenery was beautiful, and our early departure allowed us the privilege of being the first (and only) tour bus on site.
After another hour or so around the northeast side of the mountain, our second stop was at the Mt. Fuji visitor’s center. We got to watch a short English video about the geological history of the volcano (it’s really four volcanos combined into one – how about that?) before heading up the side of the mountain itself. Along the way, grooves in the pavement have been cut precisely to make your tires play a popular children’s song about Fujisan (as long as you aren’t speeding, that is.) Our tour guide sang along as we drove up the mountain. Certain milestones along the mountain are called “stations,” and the 5th station is the highest you can get to by automobile. Stations 6-9 require some good old foot power, and the peak is 12,388 ft. The mountain is only open to non-technical climbing in July and August every year, so our trip in May was still a bit chilly (45F or so) and gave us a chance to play in the snow a little bit.
The road to the 5th station is wildly popular, even more so on a Sunday, and even more so on a sunny day. Our tour bus was sharing the narrow mountain road with motorcycles and bicyclists all the way up to the top. (The bicyclists in particular have a lot more guts than I do – both in terms of simply tackling the vertical feat and to do so while barely avoiding busloads of tourists.) In fact, once we reached the top there was a long line of cars lined up just waiting for parking spaces. Fortunately the buses are allowed to pass and we were soon dropped off at a little village that springs up on the side of the mountain every summer. In addition to the expected souvenirs and omiyagi (Japanese gifts to take home to the family), there were a few restaurants and a Shinto temple. Once again we were blessed with ample sunshine and took a little hike further up the trail to enjoy our time on the ancient slopes.
We departed the 5th station around 12:30, which made us wonder what the rest of the afternoon held as the bus wasn’t scheduled to arrive back on base until 10:00 that night. We asked the tour guide, who said we had two more stops – a Shinto shrine and a village centered around small lakes fed from the melting waters of Fuji, but that majority of the time was required for the drive back. We couldn’t believe it, but the Sunday traffic was bad enough that a 2 ½ hour drive up required about 6 hours to get home! We were grateful that we weren’t the ones behind the steering wheel, and also made a mental note that train travel really is the way to go while in Japan.
As our time in Japan draws to a close, we excited for the new adventures that await us but sad to leave the growing numbers of friends we’ve made here. Very extra special thanks (in no particular order) to Tomomi, Jason, Sarah, Kaiyo, Hiro, Jim, Anthony, Keiichi, Nami, and all the other friendly and welcoming people of Japan!
In our voyage we’ve been very fortunate to experience a multitude of fantastic adventures. We are grateful for the little bits of life around the world that come our way on a daily basis. All of them leave a little mark on us, a story to carry with us for the rest of our lives. The vast majority of them are happy, pleasant, feel-good types of memories that strengthen our faith in humanity. However on two occasions we’ve been involved in deeply emotional experiences that remind us of the darker side of mankind. Oddly, both of these occasions have centered around events during World War II. Perhaps the emotions are stronger because that horrible time is still relatively fresh in our collective psyche, still within living memory of many of our grandparents, it’s easier to relate to the 1940’s than say the Mongol hoards or the armies of Alexander the Great. Perhaps the emotions are stronger because mankind’s capacity to harm itself has increased at the same rate as its capacity to help itself. Either way, the sadness we felt at Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam has only been equaled during our recent visit to Hiroshima.
As a child in the ‘70s and ‘80s I had a healthy fear of nuclear war. While not still at the heights of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War was still in full effect. I suppose movies like “War Games” probably didn’t help matters any. The thought of a couple of politicians pushing their red buttons and annihilating the human race was an all too real possibility. (Let’s just hope Mr. President and Comrade Chairman weren’t having a particularly bad day at the office.) As I grew older, the energy in the fear turned itself towards learning about how fission and fusion work. I studied the Manhattan Project and those involved. I found it particularly interesting that many of the scientists regretted what they had participated in. At the Trinity test, Robert Oppenheimer quoted an ancient text to the effect of “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” (A couple of the physicists thought they might succeed in setting the atmosphere on fire and burning all the oxygen out of the air. Bummer.)
I also learned about the first a-bomb dropped in anger on Hiroshima, Japan. I should note here that I understand that there are bad people in the world, and sometimes violence may be necessary to stop them from doing harm unto others. (Probably means I won’t find Nirvana this time around.) But that doesn’t mean I have to like the idea. The Japanese military, in the name of the Emperor, did some pretty nasty things to Americans in the 1940’s. If you ask the Chinese and Koreans, their experience with the Japanese going back to 1931 makes Pearl Harbor look like a fender bender by comparison. Based on our engagements in the South Pacific and on Okinawa, faced with the possibility of a lengthy and very costly invasion of the Japanese mainland by American troops the decision to drop the bomb arguably saved more lives (American and Japanese) in the long run. However I also understand the horror that the bombing of Hiroshima caused for the people of that city. Tens of thousands who perished immediately or in the days after August 6, 1945. Many were children, students who were conscripted and put to work demolishing buildings to create firebreaks in the city. May were Korean laborers who were “guests” of the Emperor doing similar work. Many were grandmothers and grandfathers, farmers and teachers, street sweepers and trolley drivers.
By modern standards, the bomb dropped from the Enola Gay was relatively small. In 1961, the Soviets tested an H-bomb that was more than 3,000 times more powerful than Hiroshima. (Fact I learned in the Hiroshima Museum: That weapon contained 17 times more explosive power than all of the ordinance used in WWII by everyone involved. Talk about overkill.) It wiped out most structures for about a mile in all directions, killing almost everybody in that radius instantly. A few concrete or brick structures survived semi-intact, the most famous of which is the A-bomb Dome located just a few hundred meters from the hypocenter of the blast. While the city rebuilt, an island in the center was designated as an international peace park and remains a memorial to those who lost their lives.
We visited the park and the excellent (and very sad) museum there, as well as the Children’s Peace Memorial which was created in memory of Sadako. Sadako was a toddler in 1945 and appeared to survive the blast without injury. While fleeing from the city, she and her mother were caught in the “black rain” (laden with radioactive fallout) that feel that evening. About 10 years later, Sadako contracted Leukemia. There is a Japanese tradition of origami, the art of folding paper into intricate shapes and designs. A legend states that if you fold 1,000 paper cranes, then your wish will come true. Sadako folded her 1,000 cranes (and then some), but sadly passed away about a year after her diagnosis. Her story lives on today, and children all over the world send paper cranes to the peace park where they are placed near the memorial. There is a small statue near the University of Washington in Seattle where Elizabeth’s class hangs paper cranes they fold each year as they learn about Sadako.
Amidst the sorrow of Hiroshima, there was hope as well. Inside the museum there was a display of letters written by the mayor of Hiroshima. Each time any nation conducts a nuclear weapons test, the mayor writes a letter of condemnation to the head of state involved and a plea to end all atomic weapons programs. (Sadly there have been almost 600 letters written since the end of WWII.) The park was filled with Japanese school groups on field trips. Most of them had been tasked by their teachers to practice their English, so Elizabeth and I were repeatedly approached by small groups asking “Hello, may I ask you a few questions?” They wanted to know our names and where we were from, and had a series of questions they could ask based on our responses to those two queries. One group of older students was standing in front of the A-bomb Dome at the same time we were, and were intrigued by Elizabeth’s panoramic shoot feature on her camera. (A Japanese model, incidentally.) They struck up a conversation with us, and as we spoke I was struck by the pleasant irony of it all. Here we were, just a few meters from where my country dropped an atomic bomb, having a friendly conversation in English with children whose great-grandparents would have been directly affected by the war. Perhaps that faith in humanity isn’t too misplaced after all.
Recently we were privileged to experience the final day of a Japanese Sumo tournament. While baseball and soccer have grown into Japan’s favorite sports, Sumo still holds a place deep in their hearts. One of Japan’s origin myths recounts a Sumo match between two Gods – the God that won became the father of the Japanese people. Read more »
A few observations as I get back into the writing mode:
Canadians are polite
Japanese people are polite
Therefore, Canadians and Japanese boarding an Air Canada flight from Vancouver to Tokyo are EXCEEDINGLY polite.
A few more observations:
- Air Canada’s 777 configuration is 3-3-3 (three seats on the left/three seats in the center/three seats on the right) as opposed to the more common widebody configuration of 3-4-3. Kudos to Air Canada for making the coach seats a few inches wider at by sacrificing the extra seat.
- Air Canada flight #3, on a Monday in May, is only about ¼ full. This is FANTASTIC news for all onboard, including one very tired writer who has Bogarted the middle 3 seats for himself. If I’m at all lucky, I’ll be able to curl up at some point and actually sleep for a minute.
- Also, kudos to Air Canada for installing a USB power port on each coach seat and two 110v outlets per 3 seats.