Saturday, January 12, 2013

Japan Airlines pissed me off

Travel days suck.
Especially a travel day when you're reluctantly leaving.
We woke up at 4:30, dressed, put the finishing touches on packing. Carefully as we could we left the hotel. Carried the bags rather than rolled them, because the floor is bamboo and rolling would be noisy. We didn't want to wake anyone up.
It was a quick walk to the station. We went to the Lawson's convenience store to buy some stuff for breakfast, then sat in the cold waiting on the bus. Some people were out and about. Working folks, mostly people from the entertainment areas near the station on their way home, or blue collar workers on their way to the early shift. On our bus to Itami Airport there were a few businessmen headed out to some far-flung place for a business trip.
Japan is dark and I cannot even watch it as we leave, beyond what is visible in the limited illumination from streetlights. Here and there we pass tall apartment buildings with some lights on, and I imagined there were mothers up and getting things ready for their families: lunches for children and husband, perhaps some laundry; maybe those mothers, too, had jobs to go to. It was pure speculation. I was bored for the only time on the trip.
At the airport we got our tickets. The connection in Tokyo was only 1.5 hours. It was tight. We got off the plane in the domestic terminal, then left that terminal and went into the international, back through security, then passport control, and into Narita's large international wing. Security at Itami was surprisingly light. I didn't have to take off my coat, much less my shoes. Maybe they're just that good. It wasn't a body scanner, but a metal detector. They thought my son had liquid in his backpack, so we took everything out to look at it. Only we didn't take everything out. Not that he had liquid; he didn't. Only the security agent didn't make us take everything out. We looked into the first two pockets and then she said it was fine. Maybe she knew the general area well enough so that we didn't even have to open the main pocket. Or maybe she saw in the things we took out the shape she'd seen on the scanner. Or maybe it was just a way to see our reaction, to put us through a small psychological test. We evidently passed.
In Narita we had a half hour to spare. The line was long and inefficient. As always, I picked the wrong line of the two; my wife had gotten separated from us in the crowd and she went through the faster line, five minutes ahead of us. I determined that the security folk for our line were being too kind, helping people maybe too much. Perhaps I was over thinking it. Security for international flights must meet international standards, which are stricter than domestic. That was part of the confusion. People had to throw away liquids, whereas you don't have to do that for the domestic flights. Coats had to be taken off. People weren't ready for that.
Our flight was slightly delayed. We had time to do a little looking around and bought some onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed; mine was stuffed with salmon; very yummy). Boarding was the usual confused mess, as people prepared to settle in for the eleven hour flight.
Japan Airlines disappointed me on the flight. And Expedia. Personally, I will never use them again, if I have the choice. Expedia's problems began back in October with the ticket changes, and their failure to report to Japan Airlines my food allergies only showed up on that return flight. But I hold Japan Airlines partly responsible; their choice of food for the flight showed a real lack of planning, a distinct lack of understanding of the audience: it was a flight to America, so at least one of the two choices should have been appealing to that crowd. It wasn't that so much that bothered me; rather, it was how they dealt with it. That's often the case in customer service; problems happen. Dealing with those problems can make the difference between a happy customer and one that isn't. Like me.
When the food service came, there were two choices: clam, or shrimp curry. I'm allergic to shellfish, and I told her (in Japanese) that I was allergic to both options, and asked if there was any other choice. She then proceeded to talk to my wife about me as though I was a child, explaining the food was all they had. It really pissed me off. I was in a bad mood anyway, since I was leaving a place where I badly wanted to stay. But I despise condescending attitudes. I've been accused of arrogance in my life, and I suppose it is true; but I fight against it, and I work very hard to be professional, courteous, and to treat people as adults, even in those occasions when the other person truly is acting like a child. Which I wasn't. I was simply wanting something to eat.
The flight attendant went to get the “allergen” meal. She brought it back and told my wife that on my next flight her little boy husband needs to tell them he has an allergy. Okay, she didn't call me “little boy husband” but it was pretty close, when you take attitude into consideration.
What was the allergen meal?
A fish hamburger.
It tasted like crap.
I didn't eat much of it.
And the snack on the plane? Shrimp crackers.
I was very, very hungry. I was also very angry. And tired.
So I got some whiskey and tried to drink myself to sleep. That didn't work. Every time I saw the flight attendant I wanted to ask to see her superior to explain the condescending behavior towards me. It was, I realized, only her attempt to be kind. So I didn't. She seemed like a nice person. Complaining wouldn't have gotten me anything, though, in retrospect, maybe they could have gotten me some food from business or first class. Had that been an option, I would like to think she would have taken it earlier.
There were some different crackers in the back of the plane, and I ate as many of them as I could find. And tore into the snacks we'd brought with us.
I didn't sleep.
On the flight I watched some movies, tried to relax.
I don't sleep on flights all that easily anyway. My irritation only made it worse.
I read. Nothing helped me sleep.
In Chicago, immigration was very quick and efficient. The last time I went through US immigration it was not that way.
Like in Tokyo, we had to leave the international terminal and go through domestic security again. We had plenty of time. I ate breakfast. Eventually I did sleep for maybe an hour, total, crumpled up in a chair like a wad of paper. It wasn't a good sleep, but I needed something.
Chicago to Knoxville. My wife and son slept. I tried, but couldn't. My father met us at the airport, we talked about the trip. Went to their house, picked up the dog, hugged my mother and gave her a kiss on the head, told her I loved her, which I do. Then began the long drive to Nashville. Ate Mexican along the way. Asked my wife to drive the last half hour so that we didn't die in a horrible accident. She and my son had both slept for most of the trip.

The last day was spent in Nara.
Nara was, briefly, the capital of Japan. That was a thousand years or so ago. The intervening years have been kind to the city. It was home to some great warrior monks, as well as to both some great warriors (in the true military tradition) and some great monks (as in the make love not war variety). It is a Buddhist town; there are excellent Shinto shrines, but you go to Nara for the temples.
We were in Nara because the airplane ticket was cheaper if we included a night in a hotel. Not many nights, just one. It doesn't make much sense to me, but it must make sense for Expedia. And when I say cheaper, I don't mean by ten bucks or so; more like a hundred. And the flight routing was different.
Had I the choice to do it all over again, I would have picked to stay in a different city. Nara was convenient enough when we were planning to fly out of the Kansai International Airport, a flight that left later in the day. Along the way when booking all of the flights, I changed to fly out of Osaka International in Itami which, despite being technically an international airport, is primarily for domestic flights; we would go from Itami to Tokyo, then to the US.
We still probably would have gone to Nara, though.
Saying goodbye is always tough. My mother in law was on her way to work, so we said our goodbyes to her first. Then we woke up. Packed. Checked everything. Repacked because we had picked up a few things over the previous couple of weeks. Said goodbye to my father in law, then lugged our stuff to the station where we bought the train tickets for Nara, a two hour ride.
I wanted to sleep on the train, but couldn't because it was my last train ride. It was the last time I'd see the landscape I love so much, for indefinable reasons. Really, it's not that pretty. Between Himeji and the next stop for the express train (Kakogawa) there is a rural-ish landscape, with a mid-size (by US standards) rock quarry where they've been working for as long as I can remember, a weird bastardization of Sisyphus, except instead of rolling the rock up a hill, they're tearing the hill down, rock by rock, into its component parts until. Except it never seems to change the hill. It has always looked the same.
Kakogawa to Nishi Akashi and Akashi stations begins the transition from rural/agricultural to urban. I've called the region “suburban” but really there isn't much of a distinction in Japan; there isn't what we typically think of as urban sprawl. Even in the middle of nowhere, you go along and suddenly encounter a collection of houses, stores, banks, and a post office. This village – and they are all superficially very similar, for all that they have some wonderful distinctions when you get to know the place – sits on the verge of rice fields, or huddled tightly against a hillside. Space is maximized. Old houses are single level, sometimes two levels, depending on the era when built. Newer houses are more tightly compacted, three levels nowadays, which I think is not good for a society that is growing older.
From Akashi to Kobe the shift becomes less pronounced, at least for the first half, because the train line goes along the coast and the deep penetration of urban development is not as easily seen. Then, as the train approaches Kobe, tall buildings leap from the earth, and more apartments than exist in all of Nashville populate the visible space.
Urban Japan is all you have, then, through to Osaka. We commented on the development of certain areas that once were factories and very blue collar. Like Amagasaki. Once that station was a local stop, because there was no reason for an express train to go there. Now it is beautiful, with hotels and stores, restaurants and bars, and always apartments, more apartments.
Osaka is a great city. Like Tokyo, it is very busy, very active, but the feel is different. You can always hear laughter in Osaka. Actually that's true of all of Kansai, the name for that general region. Anywhere you go you will hear somebody laughing. Osaka has a background in commerce, and maybe it is that salesman background that has cultivated a love of talk, communion, friendship, and laughter.
We changed trains in Osaka. For reasons that I suppose make sense to whatever engineer worked out the train routes, we go West along the Osaka Loop Line, rather than East; Nara is to the East. Our train goes all the way around the city before heading towards Nara. Seems to me it would be much more efficient to go east; at least a half hour could be saved in doing that. Not that I particularly care. I enjoy the scenery. It has been at least seventeen years since I went through West and South Osaka. Much has changed. There is now a massive skyscraper south of town in an area that I honestly thought was economically depressed.
I went to Nara once when I worked in Japan, and then only on a business trip. I didn't get the chance to do much of anything, so I was looking forward to going back.
Our hotel was the Guest House Nara Komachi. I mention it because I want the place to get as much name recognition as possible, even in such a small audience as I can generate. The hotel is small and quaint. Less than five minutes from the JR station, it is ideally located to explore the city's many cultural attractions. Check in is at three; it was around eleven. They held our bags for us until we could return and complete the paperwork.
From the hotel we angled towards Nara Park before deciding we should eat something. I wanted Kentucky Fried Chicken. That might sound like an odd choice, but KFC in Japan really tastes good; I think it tastes good in the US, too, but the flavor is slightly different in Japan. So we had that for lunch. From there we headed up the main street towards Nara Park.
A quick note on bicycles in Japan. I'll give fair warning that I'm going to sound a bit like a crotchety old man for a moment. When I lived in Japan, all bicycles had a bell on the handle bars, so that when you had to pass a pedestrian you could give a ring-ring so they'd know you were coming. Evidently that has changed. Bicycles still have the bells, but nobody uses them. For two weeks I held back the urge to get upset at someone about this. I never did, mind you; but I wanted to, because countless times people almost ran us down because they couldn't be bothered to ring the bell. I have theories on this that delve into the social/psychological reasons for this, but I'll save that for another time.
Nara Park has a lot of very tame deer. There is a small industry in creating and selling crackers that, for a couple of bucks, you can buy to feed to the animals. Feeding the deer is not only allowed, but is encouraged. It is one of the attractions of the park.
We don't buy any crackers until our friends arrive; the deer, wise to this, don't bother us once they figure out we're not going to feed them. That is probably a great metaphor for at least two traits of human activity. My son and I pet the deer, which is odd, and we walk among the old temples.
Our plan was to go to Todai-ji to see the great Buddha statue there. We waited at the gate for everyone. When people started showing up I bought some food for the deer, and immediately became the most popular person in the park. Deer came from all over to bully me into giving them some food. They bit my pockets, and the kids had a fabulous time running away from the animals, tossing the crackers over their heads. I decided to treat the deer like I would my dog, and while I never got one to sit, using a firm voice helped with all but the most stubborn.
Todai-ji's gate is a sight to see. Like most Buddhist temples in Japan, there were guardians inside the gate, massive wooden figures. I joked with my son that they had terrible corns on their feet, a joke he got because there happened to be a couple of large knots in the wood used for the feet; my wife didn't think it was at all amusing, so I chalked it up to a humor translation issue.
We ambled towards the main hall. That's not a word you get to use much in life, but it perfectly described the slow, somewhat haphazard way we went, always going in the general direction we needed to go, but doing absolutely nothing to get there fast. And, more importantly, not caring. These were old friends, including a few people from our very first days in Nashville. Everybody mingles in the slowly moving group, catching up with old friends, getting to know new ones.
You haven't lived until you've seen an old, large statue up close and personal. It gives you perspective. Once upon a time, in an era when even pen and paper were commodities, someone figured out the best way to make a massive figure. In the case of Todai-ji, the figure is made out of bronze, adding a couple of layers of complexity, and parts of it have been re-cast over the centuries. I have no understanding of the “bronzing” process, mind you, but it seems very complicated to do the first time; having to redo a particular part for some reason, and to make it match the rest of it – especially something as obvious as the head – is really beyond me.
Walking in a large temple is different than the small temple up on Mt. Masui in Himeji,which rivals Todai-ji in age, if not grandeur. Having a large bronze statue of Buddha can make all of the difference in the way you see a place. Large, famous temples are tourist attractions. Much like Notre Dame in Paris, Todai-ji sees more visitors because of the place itself than from any religious reason. Zuiganji, in contrast, is more like your local church; it is beautiful, and has beauty and wholesomeness that in many ways equals its more famous cousin. But it isn't the same. Isn't in the same historic town blocks from the station and other almost as famous temples. It isn't quite as grand. Which is why people will visit Todai-ji, but worship at Zuiganji.
Two-thirds of the way around the Buddha is a “tunnel” cut into one of the large pillars. It is the same diameter as the nose of the statue, and kids crawl through it. The purpose is to give a sense of proportion. A giant Buddha statue looks great when you're down below staring up, but it isn't easy to really understand just how big it is. The giant Buddha in Kamakura lets you go up inside of it; that's a great way to get your sense of proportion. In Nara, there's a tunnel cut into a pillar. It might seem sad in comparison to going up inside the bronze, but it isn't at all. Because the kids laugh as they crawl through the hole the size of the statue's nostril, and they giggle and line up again and again, at some depth completely unaware that they're doing anything other than crawling through a hole in a giant column of wood. And isn't one of religion's greatest attributes is that it makes the children smile? For thousands of years, even while some faiths resorted to fear and anger, most realized the need to be there for children, to teach them (some would say indoctrinate, but it was better than no education), to give them joy and hope in a life that wasn't usually so pleasant. Some of my favorite memories are of Sunday School and the friendships that I have to this day that started in church, even though some of those people long ago gave up the faith. When a religion ignores youth, when it throws it away for some cause or other, that's when you should run away.
There is a small gift shop in the temple. My son bought a souvenir for a young lady friend of his. I wanted to buy a roof tile. For just over $10 you could buy a roof tile, put your own message on it, and then forever be a part of the temple. I didn't. Not sure why, because I really wanted to.
We leave the temple and go to a couple of others in the area. Unwilling to break apart the group, one of the kids breaks out jump ropes, ties them together, and the kids run through the spinning rope in turns. Some have never done this before, including my own son. And me. Other adults join in. It is a laughing, joyous time.
That word again.
There is always laughing in Japan, as I noted in a previous post. In Nara, we laugh. That's all life needs. Laughter.
It grows dark and we head, reluctantly, back toward the main gate to the temple.
There is another great word for walking: sauntering. In Appalachian pronunciation, it is “sainter” and that is what we did. An old friend and I walked, slowly, while the rest of the group packed up. He and I are old friends. Because of him I play soccer at least once a month. He is the one who first organized the Japanese community at Vanderbilt into a group that gathers to play one of the world's greatest sports, a group that, generally, is inclusive of anyone who wants to play, regardless of skill. I talk to him about recent developments in the group, the increasingly competitive nature of things, and my dissatisfaction with that because it detracts from what I see as our charter. But things change. Maybe I'm just getting too old. I miss Takeshi, I realize.
Afternoon waning, we slowly separate. My wife, son, and I head to the large Shinto shrine in the park: Kasuga Taisha.
It is crowded with New Years visitors, a reminder that, in Japan (and other parts of Asia, I assume), New Years isn't a single-day holiday. It is a very pretty shrine, a great way to end what has been a great trip. But there isn't much to say about it other than that. Kasuga Taisha isn't all that large, and it was growing dark so we needed to get back.
Walking back to the hotel, I talk. It's the stress, frustration, and anxiety that makes me chatter. I don't want to leave Japan, but cannot stay, and there are no jobs doing what I do in Japan with my level of Japanese reading/writing.
Ramen for dinner, an appropriate choice for our last meal. It was very good, a unique flavor with hints of citrus peel. At the station we bought the bus tickets for the next day, then went shopping for some last-minute souvenirs: my son always buys candy for his friends.
The hotel check in was smooth. The owner had already moved our bags to the room, which I thought was a great touch. On, the hotel had a couple of bad reviews that I didn't understand. It isn't a large room, but it is Japan: hotel rooms aren't large in Japan, especially at a place that is considered a budget hotel. But it is very nice. Bunk beds so we all had a place to sleep. A good shower. Flat screen television. WiFi in our room, free. Lights in the beds to read by so we wouldn't disturb anyone else, with curtains you could pull around each bed.
I couldn't sleep. I watched television, read, surfed the internet. Anything to prolong the last night. In the end, though, I couldn't resist it. Sleep won.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Hiking, Kobe, and good izakaya food

Nunobiki Waterfall is one of those somewhat surreal places that you tend to find in Japan. It is in Kobe, just north of the Shin Kobe shinkansen station. It is tall, a collection, really, of smaller waterfalls, with one high cascade somewhat in the middle of the run of water.
I went there often, when I lived in Kobe.
Before the earthquake, for fun, running or mountain biking, often the latter in places where I probably shouldn't have been.
After the earthquake, for peace, a place to forget some things best forgotten.
On my next-to-the-last day in Japan, I went again, for reasons I'm not clear on.
First, the logistics. Many great adventures in Japan begin with a train ride. I chose the Sanyo line from Himeji to Sannomiya (Kobe), because the Sanyo line offers better scenery. For two-thirds of the trip there isn't a bit of difference between Sanyo and Japan Rail (JR). It is that first third out of Himeji that I enjoy. It brings back different memories. Trips to Shosekiheki, an oceanside area where I rock climbed, walked, and watched friends eat shellfish raw, picking them out with a toothpick (because they were that small). Shosekiheki, where my father-in-law now paraglides and where he grows vegetables above the cliffs.
Then, the area that is more blue collar than many any foreigner ever sees, where, after climbing, I walked to a train station different from the one that took me to the coast.
At Kakogawa we pick up the JR line, and from there to Kobe follow it, running more or less alongside.
Sannomiya brought different memories. Of good times out with friends after work. That one party when I ate Kobe Beef for the only time in my life. Just over a year later, two people from that party were dead – missing, really, bodies never found. I wasn't their friend. Maybe I could have been, but I never established a relationship with them. Both lived in the area west of Kobe station, where many died, not in the earthquake, but in the fires because the controls on the gas lines didn't shut off the fuel.
Now, Sannomiya is back to life. It is vibrant. People use the term alive to describe cities. You feel that in Sannomiya. Though morning, I can see, with my mind's eye, the neon, how it will look at night, later, when I meet my friend.
From Sannomiya, north, to Shin Kobe. I lived there, once. Our building sustained a crack in the spackling, nothing more. My apartment's damage was limited to a broken sliding glass door where our television fell off of its stand; in retrospect, it could have just as easily fell onto my head. Across the street is where I used to work.
I had two jobs. One was to teach English in companies; I was good at that job, and I enjoyed it. The second, though, was my career. I was associate editor at an English language magazine, Kansai Time Out, one of the best in the country. From David Jack I learned much, and it was for that job that I returned to graduate school. But I never returned, and, a dozen or so years later, the magazine was sold and then closed.
The office is still there. Well, the book store is. On the ground floor, also run by David, was Wantage Books, a resource for anyone who read. And I was a voracious reader. Still am, as much as is possible. I would read anything in those days, and often finished a novel in two days – one, if my train commutes for the other job were long.
My apartment building used to neighbor a foreign preschool. Until living there I had never heard Hindi or Arabic music; but the cars that dropped off their kids often had such music playing quite loudly. Now there is the opposite of a preschool: a home for the elderly. Japan is aging and having fewer kids, so I guess it makes sense.
Behind my building is now a much larger apartment complex. It dwarfs my old place.
I continue up the road. There used to be a single skyscraper in Shin Kobe: the Shin Kobe Oriental Hotel. Now there are two other buildings much taller, and the Oriental Hotel is owned by a different company. Where once there was a thriving shopping area, now there are shutters, and the shops that were open were all different. Of course. But in our mind things don't change the way – or as rapidly as – we belive.
I walk through the underground passage to the hotel. Steps up, then to the bathroom in the department store. You always use the bathroom you come to, whether you need it or not, especially if it's one with a Western toilet. Which I didn't need, but it is a good policy nonetheless to know where there is a toilet you're comfortable with using. Just in case.
Through the hotel to the station, and immediately I am unable to recall the exact route. There. I remember. Walk up the path, more or less as if following the Ikuta River straight into the hill. Don't look at the large towers on the right, don't think about how frightening they would have been on that day. Near the station is a sign. It is Japanese, but that Japanese I know well enough to read, if not to write: Nunobiki. The road is little more than a path, and then it lives up to that and becomes one truly, winding around the houses that must cost be worth a small fortune, though perhaps the bullet trains make them slightly less attractive.
The path becomes a bridge, then, and that is the second thing that I do not recall in the least. If there was a bridge there in my day, I would never have said so. But it is old, and over a small gorge, so certainly it has been in existence for a long time. Or one like it, anyway. Across the bridge to another thing I don't remember. I'll stop making that note, because it will be common enough over the next ten minutes. That's how long it takes to get to the main waterfall, and the entire way is foreign to me. I used to go up the left hand path, then, above the falls, turned right to come down the other set of steps. It crossed my mind to go that same route, but I'm afraid the shock of remembering nothing about the place I once was so familiar with would be too much for me.
The falls are nice and full. I remember that much, at least. Above them, instead of turning right I go left, where, a hundred yards or less up the hill, is a small rest area that once was nothing more than a shelter. I'm certain of that. Truly. Now it is a full on rest area. But the view is still great.
To the left there is a path that follows the falls, and I continue along that. I could have gone up to the road that goes to the Nunobiki Herb Park (or Harb, as the mis-translated Japanese sometimes shows it). That is how I would ride my bike when I need a quick workout. It's a steep hill, if short.
Up the path. Over the creek that leads to the fall, then up the dam that holds back the small lake that feeds the creek that leads to the fall (in the bottom of the sea). At the lake I pass some people who had previously passed me, then, when I'm taking some pictures, they pass me again. It is a long distance game of hopscotch along the paved trail, each of us taking our turn stopping. I let them go by. It is a father and his two sons. Then I just listen.
Much is made out of the great orators of the world. But listening is far more valuable. There, at the lake, I close my eyes and open my ears. The rush of the water down the spillway off to my left. A caw high in the trees. Smaller birds tweeting. Wind moving the branches.
Move on, I tell myself. Then I answer: no need. We have all day.
Further along the lake, at the far north end, the creek returns. The road that I could have taken earlier rejoins the path at what can only be described as a small village. Once, there was little there. A vending machine. A telephone. Some hot tea on cold days, and cold tea on hot days. Always one of the places sold noodles. Now there are several buildings. Most seem to be houses, not stores, but it's still the New Years holiday, so I wasn't sure. One place was falling down, and inside it I saw a worn bench, bright red, that said Drink Coke. I wanted that bench, but even if I could have found someone to ask, I had no way to get it home, not before I left. Further along was the original building I remembered. There were two old signs on its side that I badly wanted: one was for Coke, and it was unremarkable except for its age. The other was for Sprite, with both English and Japanese. Had someone been around, I would have bought it, and found some way to get it back to America. I would have shipped it. I had it planned out. But nobody was there.
There's a bathroom there now, a new building, with new things. It seems so out of place, but Japan is becoming more health conscious. Progress comes in many forms.
Down to the creek again and I had to cross it. When I road mountain bike with friends, the challenge was to get across the creek without getting wet. The easy way was to go over the bridge. It is about a foot wide, and if you fall off you're hurt. The harder way was also the least scary. The creek is shallow, unless it has rained a lot. I would hop across the rocks as best I could, and almost always I got wet. I also was almost always alone on those rides, having, in actuality, only one friend who liked to ride bikes with me, and he was a road bike fanatic, a triathlete, and he lived far away.
Across the bridge and then up a trail that I had never been on. Perhaps it was new. Many things seem new.
It was the hardest trail I've been on in a long time, following the ridge of the hill straight up. Elevation gain cannot be much more than three hundred meters, if that, and it doesn't take long to make the top. But then there is a saddle and another hill of equal gain. At least it felt that way. I'm afraid to look it up. I don't want to find out I was sweating it out over a molehill.
And I was sweating. It started to worry me somewhat. High temps for the day were supposed to be in the forties. That isn't too cold, but, with a strong wind blowing, and in the coolness of the mountains, sweating can be very detrimental to your health. That was my excuse for resting, and I stand by it.
Down the hill, where another hill rises in front of me, making up all of the elevation I lost in the descent and then some. My path goes to the left, however, and soon I am down at another creek. I hear a car or two in the distance. Not regular cars that go vroom-vroom, but those little modified cars that young people drive that sound like one long extended fart. I know that road, and know why they are on it. It is curvy and fun, and the police greatly frown on farty cars zipping around. Of course, it's impossible to know how fast they are going; maybe they are really puttering around, and only sound fast because they are also loud. It is a great road to ride a bike on, I think, as I make my way up to where there is not a car in sight.
Across the road is a park I always planned to go to, but never did. No idea why. When you're young you think you can get to anyplace anytime, because time stretches out before you, vast and endless. Older now, I feel the need to see as much as possible before time makes it too complicated to do so.
The park's pond is frozen. It looks like, in warmer weather, they do paddle boats or something of the sort. Volunteers are sweeping the paths. I use the toilet because it is there, then head into the woods.
At that point, I could have taken the short way back. But I had plenty of time. I also had no idea how far I was going. That's not good. But, with five hours, I figured it couldn't be that far.
It is a murderous walk. High up I climbed, steep trails, often coarse and rocky. I cannot complain for two reasons. First, the view from the top was spectacular. Second, as difficult as my climb was, people coming the other way had it much, much worse. It hurt my knees going down. I slipped a couple of times. Many people were coming up. I followed my standard ethic of letting the people going uphill have the right of way, unless they explicitly stop, because, when you're going uphill, it sucks to have to break your rhythm.
Ankles and knees suffered greatly in that scramble down. I cannot call it a walk. There was little walking in it.
Then I became very, very afraid.
I hate bridges. Particularly bridges that are small and tend to move when people are on them.
At the bottom of that hill was just such a bridge.
Below was a road, several hundred feet away. The bridge was perhaps an equal distance across.
Why I am afraid is not known to me. In my life I've gone paragliding off of high peaks. I've climbed up more-than-vertical cliffs, falling with only a rope the size of your finger to keep me alive. Those things don't bother me.
Bridges do. It is the urge to jump. That's the problem. I kept my eyes glued to the path right in front of me and fought down that crazy instinct to leap off. Not as a way of committing suicide, but for the adventure of it. That's why rock climbing and paragliding never bothered me. Both are forms of adventure. Walking across a bridge is not.
On the other side I was shaking.
Then, up another hill. This time with steps, because it was too steep to put in a proper trail. At the top of that one, down again, then up again. I asked a passing hiker, “Is Suzurandai this way?” They told me yes. Going up the second hill, when a hiker didn't yield the right of way, I asked him the same question, because he should have yielded, at least a little. When I believe an ethic, I am serious about it, almost to the point of being a jerk.
Finally, the last ascent is behind me. There is a communications tower with an observation deck, and I can see all the way to Himeji in one direction, and the large Kansai International Airport in another. It is a beautiful, clear afternoon. Three o'clock. I do some quick calculations of the distance, based on some signs I saw. Perhaps fifteen kilometers, give or take a couple, with some wicked scrambles both up and down hills.
One last trip down one last hill. I take a mixed route of both road and trail. There is a pond with koi. Only when I saw it, the pond was frozen, and the koi were too, as though they were in a picture.
At Suzurandai station I find a ramen shop and eat soy ramen with pork. I want a beer but they don't have anything on draft, so I drink water instead. I bought my ticket, and behind me a middle-aged Japanese lady said in a very low but distinct voice, “I think it is very chilly today.” I was the only foreigner there, so it is a good assumption she was talking to me. I ignore her, because I'm not sure if she's flirting or crazy, and I don't feel like dealing with either scenario.
It is four fifteen. Back at Sannomiya I go to Starbucks, not to drink coffee, but for the free wifi. A lot of people are there. At the Himeji Starbucks, there was never much of a crowd. It is a smaller place, but while it is located a block off of the main shopping arcade, it is in one of the fashionable stores. The Starbucks I went to was in the Kobe International House building. Every table is taken, and people are standing around waiting on someone to leave. Just outside the coffee shop, though, are some empty chairs. Comfortable chairs.
They were vacant because just to the right are the doors leading outside. It was cold. My hands froze as I fought with the wifi, something it seemed everyone else was also doing. To be such a busy place, they have weak wifi. I bought a coffee to warm up my hands. It didn't work.
At five fifteen I had killed enough time, I thought, and walked to where I was to meet my friend. I was very early. I found a place out of the wind that was slightly warmer than other places.
He found me.
Pete is twenty years older than me. We've been friends for a long time. When my first English school went bankrupt, Pete and I happened to be teaching classes in the same company, only he worked for another school named Time T.I. Communications. I was jobless for about two weeks. Within days of losing my job, my students at the company contacted Time and told them that if they hired me to teach, they would give that business to Time. So I was hired. I've always felt a small debt to Pete for that; Time was a wonderful place to work, and in many ways I wish I had never left.
We went to an izakaya to eat. An izakaya is the Japanese version of tapas. Most of the food served is a side dish, though this particular place also had full meals. I got only some fried chicken and french fries, while Pete pigged out. We drank a couple of beers there and caught up on old times.
Next we went to a bar called Iznt. It is named (sort of) after an older bar that used to be a franchise in the region named Bar Isn't It. I never went to that older bar; it had something of a bad reputation; or a good reputation, depending on your perspective. Pete had a friend there, and it turns out that guy was in Kobe at the same time I was. He was working (he owns or part owns the place; not sure which), so I didn't get to ask if we knew some of the same people, or had some of the same memories. It is a good place, non-smoking (a trend in Japan now), with a good international crowd. A Frenchman was going around doing card tricks, and Pete and I drank more beer and talked about the complexities of life. One thing I miss in my life is having someone who shares my philosophies. Pete and I have that bond, thankfully, and his perspective on what is happening in our country is refreshing, as he has not lived in the US in quite some time.
Train home, not as drunk as I probably should have been. I went to the apartment, bathed, and was asleep within a half hour.

Tatsuno is a small town west of Himeji. I went there on my last trip; rode a rented bicycle through the countryside. It was summer then, warm and easy weather for riding a bike. Can't do that in winter, not with the clothes I had, on a rental bike.
We went for a single reason: to go to the small factory that makes “somen” noodles. I don't particularly like somen, to be honest, but that has more to do with how we usually eat them than with the noodles themselves. They are very small diameter and made from wheat, similar in makeup to the larger udon noodles. In summer it's very popular to eat them cold, and I like them that way; but it is never enough for a meal, and I prefer that preparation in smaller amounts.
The factory was closed.
That was my fault; there was no English website, and I didn't ask for anyone to help me read the Japanese to see if the place was open. It was on a Friday, and while many places still recognized that day as part of the New Year holiday, the banks didn't, so I made an inaccurate assumption that the factory would be open for tours. It was disappointing. I really wanted to eat somen.
The main reason I wanted to go to Tatsuno had nothing to do with somen, or castles, or anything even remotely cultural. I wanted to go to the Super Bath (Super Sento in Japanese).
A Super Sento is like a regular public bath, only larger, with features of an onsen (which is natural spring water). The one in Tatsuno is run by a company called Akane (Ah-Kah-ne), which has several bath houses in the area.
In that particular bath there are many different pools, some inside, some outside. The water was bit tepid; there should always be at least one of the outside baths that is very, very hot. But it was decent, and also inexpensive.
When I finished hanging out in the different tubs, I was told to leave because I have a tattoo.
Now, my tattoo is pretty small, maybe three inches high by four inches wide. It isn't much, one color (actually two, but the red has faded so that it's hard to see), and is simply my wife's name with a little decoration. There are seriously sentimental reasons why I got it in the first place and also why I keep it.
Tattoos are not normally a problem in public baths, even in those that have signs that say “No Tattoos.” The rule is meant to keep out the Yakuza, who have some very serious body art. Most places are able to distinguish my little tattoo with a full blown arm sleeve or something of that sort.
Evidently, the Akane bath in Tatsuno doesn't care. Or else a customer complained. Either way: I was asked to leave.
I made no issue of things; going in I knew they didn't want people with tattoos. And while I personally feel it's a bit of a silly rule, and I believe that it is 2013, and even in rural Japan there are young Japanese with fashionable tattoos, and I also believe that a tattoo is much less offensive than the scars some old men carry around from various surgeries on their torsos, I was a guest in both the country and that bath. So I didn't put up a fuss. I asked if I could finish my shower, and when I did, I left.
Lunch was at a Family Restaurant. There are many brands of these restaurants in Japan, including Denny's. Note that Denny's in Japan tastes nothing like Denny's in the US. Our GPS gave us very few options for places to eat; Tatsuno is a small town, but not that small. But we didn't have much choice other than to drive around, which none of us wanted to do. Well, I was fine with it, but I was the only one. So we went to a place called Gusto.
There is little to recommend the place, other than that it has a salad bar. It is a tiny salad bar. The lettuce area of a typical US salad bar takes up more space. That might be equal part condemnation of US salad bars, and to be fair it was a really good try. There was some good stuff, including coleslaw and my favorite kind of Japanese dressing, though the bowl they gave me to put the salad in was pretty small. Maybe I had been in Japan too long, but I honestly felt a little embarrassed to go back a second time. My lunch also came with the curry bar, so I got that, also in a very small bowl.
My son's lunch was pretty pathetic, though. He said it tasted fine, but the steak was the size of the palm of my hand. His order of fries was quite large; the intent, I think, was for a family to share the order. For an American, it was just the right serving size for one.
Then we headed home, taking local roads because I wanted to. It was a slow day otherwise, with some shopping to round things out, followed by a dinner of sukiyaki, then bed.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

My legs were really, really tired.
Really, really, really.
The hike from January 2nd was harder than I had thought even at the time, I guess, and every joint from the ears down ached in some small or large way. Mostly large. Especially my ankles.
Not that I let that stop me from exploring.
It is well known in my extended Japanese family/friend network that I know Himeji. Not just the main roads. I have walked the town from coast to mountains, taking side roads or seeking out signs of temples and shrines. It's easy to find a shrine; you look for the trees, and those trees will mark either a park or a shrine, and either has its own charms. Temples you find by the ornate roofs that stand out from the rest of the community like a Hummer at a Mini dealership.
On January 3rd, I found some places that were new to me.
My intention was to find a public bath. As I mentioned in the first four sentences, I was tired. A good soak in a hot bath was what I needed. Places close, and the economy has been tough in Japan; the bath that I was going to visit was no longer open. I had walked all the way to the castle, about a mile, with no bath waiting on me. I could have turned around and gone back to the apartment, climbed under the kotatsu (think: coffee table with an electric heater under it, with a blanket that covers everyone's laps; remember you sit on the floor in Japan; and my in-laws have a heated carpet; it is heaven). That option crossed my mind. I also thought about hitting up Mr Donuts. (It is hard to overstate how good those donuts are; I was confident one or two would rejuvenate me.)
Instead, I went in search of another bath that I had heard about.
Sidebar on my fascination with public baths. It isn't so much the bathing in public that I'm all giddy about. What I do like is that a good bath will have multiple hot tubs, of varying temperatures, a sauna, perhaps a cold bath (just to make sure you're awake), and, if it's a “super sento” (super public bath), there will be at least one or two unique types of bath: one that's outside, one that has something added to improve health, a waterfall that you can stand under, etc.
I didn't find the bath. I didn't really look that hard, because I found some cool things in Himeji that I had either forgotten about, or just didn't know.
First, as I've noted before, Himeji was a castle town. The walls and fortifications were very broad, encompassing much of the town. That means that, here and there, you can find remnants of that era. Most of the buildings were long ago destroyed; it's hard to remember that we didn't always have the fascination for our history that we do today. What I found on my trip was part of the earthen wall and moat east of the castle. Along the moat (which is really now just a large, more or less rectangular pond) was a path. At first it was clearly meant for walking, three people wide and well worn. As I continued along, crossing a wonderful reproduction bridge, it grew more and more narrow. To my left was the moat, to my right houses. Maybe two thirds along it was hardly wide enough for one person. I tried hard not to brush against the walls of the houses, and I was fascinated at what it was like to live there, to have, outside my back porch, such beautiful scenery.
As if in answer, an old lady through a small bag of scraps over my head into the moat.
Now, I really, really like to find the best in situations, and I'll give her the benefit of the doubt: I think she was feeding the koi in the moat, because she said something to that effect after she threw the bag in, which was also right after she saw me seeing her. It was a plastic bag, so maybe she just needs to learn to use something more biodegradable, or, perhaps, open the gate and throw in the tangerine peel (that's what it looked like). I'm certain the fish appreciated the gesture, but would prefer to not choke on the plastic bag. Or be teased by having a nice, fresh tangerine peel within their grasp, but unable to eat it because of some barrier that they cannot comprehend.
But I really think she was just throwing away some garbage.
I walked on after giving her a look of reproach.
At the end of the moat, I had circled back to the castle. I turned right, and then, after a hundred meters or so, right again. That led me to a shopping street that I have never seen before.
Twice in one day I had seen something new in Himeji.
It was an old shopping street, and pretty much everything there was closed. It wasn't covered. On both sides of the brick-paved road were beautiful street lamps. They looked old, giving the street a classic look. I wanted the stores to be open, to see what the neighborhood was like when there was commerce happening. A map about halfway up gave me the layout of the neighborhood (Nozato; that's where I started my hike the previous day). It listed many temples and old buildings from the castle era. I set off, having forgotten the bath and my aching legs.
Temples are different from shrines. Temples are Buddhist. Shrines, Shinto. In the area east of the castle, I found at least eight small temples, with their associated cemeteries. Shinto shrines don't have cemeteries; they're the dominion of Buddhism. Most of the temples were either in very good condition or had been recently refurbished. They had older buildings, but new as well. All had a bell tower, and I wanted to hear the peal of the bell. It is a very serene sound, deep and intense. I rang a large bell once; on Mt. Shosha at Engyoji temple there is a peace bell that all visitors are allowed to ring. The experience stuck with me.
Not once did I see a large shrine; there were small ones, literally no larger than a closet in most cases. Where I a scholar I might know why there were only temples there. But while I would love to be a scholar on such things, I'm not, nor do I have the means to pursue such a life; I'm a traveler, plain and simple. My job is to explore things, to seek out areas where I haven't been. In one day I found a plethora of new things, experienced a side of Himeji that was new for me. Somewhere, in a past life, I was an explorer. Maybe I can make a stretch of my job and say that I still am, in a manner of speaking. But at the end of the day I am meant to do, with my mind and body, to work and uncover new things and let others decide the meaning of those things. I'm a simple man living in a complex life, that sometimes feels foreign to me, and, strapped by the trappings of modern life, I suppose that will always be.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

A day of hiking

Hiking is about as pure an activity as humans can do. It is walking from point A to point B. We call it hiking because it takes place outside, on trails. Anyone can go hiking; there is a broad range of levels, from paved short trails to just at the cusp of what then becomes mountain climbing.
When I hike in Japan, it is, mechanically, the same as hiking back home. One foot in front of the other. Repeat. There are a couple of key differences. First, in Tennessee, it isn't likely that, along the path, I will come across an old temple or shrine. Log cabin, sure; even old cars, especially in the Abrams Creek area of the Smokies. Second, trail signs in Japan are written in Japanese. That might seem really obvious; I suppose it is, seeing as how I'm in Japan. But I cannot read Japanese all that well; I've simply forgotten a lot of the characters over the years from lack of use.
It is that second one that was important to my walk on January 2nd.
Himeji is surrounded by mountains. Surprisingly few of the hills have serviceable hiking trails. My favorite place to hike is the collection of mountains north of the castle, particularly Mt. Masui and Mt. Hiromine. That was my destination.
I took the train to Nozato, which is two stations up on the Bantan Line. The Bantan Line is the north-south artery out of Himeji, connecting the wonderful town of Kinosaki Onsen up on the Japan Sea coast. I could have walked to Nozato in about 45 minutes, but I figured I would be doing enough walking later.
From Nozato there are a couple of ways to get up the mountain, none of which I knew at the time. I was going old school: I could see my destination, and I would find a way to get to it. And I will admit that my destination was Mt. Hiromine. I wound up going to Mt. Masui. It was a lucky turn of events.
On top of Mt. Masui is a Buddhist temple called Zuiganji. Like most temples, it claims a lineage going back to the early days of Japan's history. The buildings are only a few centuries old, having been burned down by a ravaging warlord. It is a sprawling place, and, as temples go, it's actually quite small. That isn't to say the temple isn't a grand place; it is, and is made all the more so because of its location. In reality it's only a few miles from the sprawling Himeji suburbs, and a major east-west interstate runs under the mountain, exiting every so often to fill the hills with the sound of cars rushing somewhere. At Zuiganji none of that is evident. Every so often, when the wind blows the right way, I can hear a car horn, or maybe a loud truck. Mostly what I hear are birds. Lots and lots of birds, even in the heart of winter, a symphony, playing just for me.
I miss the trail and walk up the road that I think goes to the temple. An older lady passes, and I ask her in my politest Japanese if I am on the road to Mt. Masui. She smiles and says, yes, wishes me a happy new years, and moves on.
It takes 45 minutes to walk from Nozato to the steps that lead up to the temple.
There is a choice of a really nice, pretty set of steps or an old, worn set. Being who I am, I take the old, worn, ankle-breaking set of steps. Along the way I see a shrine or two, and a large pipe with crystal clear water running out of it.
At the top is a small pond, and two large maps. I get my bearings and walk to the main hall, a large, old building. As I walk around, an old lady off to my right yells to me, “Would you like some daikon?” (Daikon is a long, cylindrical Japanese radish.) I reply that I would, and walk to the newer building where she stood, along with a collection of other people standing around a fire or working in the building. She brought out a plate with a stewed slice about two inches thick, along with a kind of tofu and a cup of tea.
“Do you want some sake?” one of the men asks. I decline, explaining that I have a long walk ahead of me and don't really want to drink at the moment.
“How about Amazake?”
“What is that?”
“It is a sweet, fermented rice drink, non alcoholic.”
I didn't know the word for “fermented” that he used, and we had one of those interesting moments you get in travel when you stumble to find a way to explain something. A young lady happened along who spoke good English, and she translated it for us. I never actually said I wanted any. It was brought to me, and I drank it. I'm not sure how to describe the flavor. It's somewhat like sake, with bits of rice floating. I enjoyed it, and felt somewhat invigorated after.
The man who had done most of the talking gave me some maps of the temple area.
“Do you live here?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “I study Zazen.”
“I'm impressed,” I told him. And I was. Zazen isn't easy. I have great respect for those that can meditate, sitting perfectly still or else you get whacked on the shoulders by an older priest, which I think would make me want to move even more. He showed me how to get to the trail to Hiromine, and on the map I saw where I had missed the trail up the mountain. They gave me two tangerines, and I said goodbye. For fifteen minutes or so I explored the various areas of Zuiganji, most of which I didn't know existed. Then I headed for Hiromine.
It's an easy trail to follow, if you know the characters for “Hiromine Shrine” (which I did). Just over a mile between the two religious locations, it takes me fifteen minutes of fast walking.
Hiromine was crowded with people coming to ask for a New Years blessing. I ate one of the tangerines, drank some of the tea I had brought with me, and rested for a few minutes. I didn't take many pictures of Hiromine; people were worshiping, and I felt it disrespectful. I walked around the back of the shrine and headed up the mountain.
A sign told me that it was about 5 kilometers to Mt. Shosha. For many years I've wanted to make that trip. Online I have not found any maps that explain the route. So I would go exploring. How hard could it be?
Turns out it was really hard.
The sign at Hiromine that pointed towards Mt. Shosha was the one and only sign that mentioned my destination. So when I got to a crossroads that pointed to another place that I couldn't read, I didn't take that path, choosing to go straight ahead instead. The trail had red blazes, and, in the Smokies, trails are often marked by colors in just such a way. I walked.
And walked.
And walked.
Along the way I passed another crossroads that I couldn't read, so I again kept straight.
Then I passed the cemetery, and I thought it would be pretty cool to be buried high up on a mountain like that. For one thing, it would give my family an excuse to not take care of my grave. But it was a beautiful location for a graveyard, and many of the tombstones looked ancient. If I knew kanji (the Chinese characters used in Japanese are called kanji) I would have stopped to look at some. Instead, I went on.
I ate my second tangerine.
Then I got to a third crossroads. There was no sign, but I knew that going straight was not correct. That way went north, and I had been growing concerned that the trail was much to north-south; I needed to go west. The split in the trail went west. So I went that way. Soon I saw a red blaze on a tree. Great. I'd made the right decision.
The trail became pretty treacherous after a hundred yards, a real scramble down. Then it stopped being a trail at all, but was simple tree after tree with a red blaze. Eventually a creek formed and the trail more or less followed that. I saw many signs of wild pigs, from scat to the areas they had dug up looking for food. Wild pigs are bad news. I didn't want to have a run-in with one, or more than one. For one thing, I would lose that battle; for another, I didn't know if anyone would ever find my body.
Another stream joined the one I was following, coming down from my left. The red blazes went that way. Every instinct in me said don't go to the left, even though that's where the red markers were. How the hell did I know that the markers were even to mark a trail? They could have been put there by hunters (yes, there are hunters in Japan), or people out looking for wild vegetables or roots. When in doubt, follow the water out. I went against my instincts, going up hill. As if to confirm I'd made the wrong decision, I saw a wild pig. It was small, but made me slightly tense. I started conserving my water, even though I was certain I could find my way out by going back down to the stream and taking it to a larger stream, on and on. I could hear, far in the distance, the bell from Mt. Shosha, home to one of my favorite temples in Japan (Engyoji; it was used in The Last Samurai movie).
I rejoined the previous trail after about a half hour of fast walking/scrambling up the hill.
So I went back to the crossroads (the second one noted above) and took it. It went to another cemetery, one that seemed to be even older than the first one I had passed. I walked back down the trail, and then headed to the other crossroads (the first one noted above). It indicated that there was a pond of some sort in that direction. It was well kept, and well marked for about half of the distance.
Then it, too, became a treacherous scramble down. I was exhausted and wasn't sure I could make it back up that hill if I needed to. More than once I slid to a stop, thankful that I hadn't hurt myself. At the bottom was another sign that I couldn't read; later I learned that it pointed towards a local college (which was what I suspected). The other pointed towards the pond. I went to the pond.
It started to rain. Of course it did. I needed rain like I needed a kick in the groin. It was just a sprinkle, so I waited to pull out my rain coat, hoping for a shelter at the pond. I mean, the dang place had signs all the way from Hiromine Shrine many miles away. Surely there was a shelter.
There is no shelter there. Nor is there a pond.
But there is a road.
And I heard the bells again. Then it hit me that, had I gone right instead of left an hour and a half earlier, I probably would have wound up at the exact same place.
I took the road. It went from dirt to gravel, gravel to broken pavement, then to asphalt, then concrete. Houses appeared in fits and starts, becoming large neighborhoods. Then I joined a large, well-traveled road, and I could see the cable car that goes up Mt. Shosha.
I still had quite a walk. I put on my rain coat as the sprinkling of rain became stronger. It never turned into a downpour, thankfully, until, over a half hour later, I got on a bus headed for the train station where I could then walk home. Mt Shosha would have to wait; there was no bridge from my side of the river over to where the cable car and hiking trails go up to the top. Well, there is, but it would add about a mile to my trip. And I didn't know if I could do it. Besides, my goal was to find a way to walk from Hiromine to Mt. Shosha, and I had accomplished that.
I was starving.
My legs ached.
Somewhere in my back a small rebellion was being waged by the various muscles there.
Yet I smiled all the way back. I had met and overcome many challenges in the previous five hours. I calculated that I had done about twelve miles of total hiking, of which maybe four were superfluous.
Back home, I recounted my adventures to a mostly uninterested family. They went out shopping while I stayed to write.

New Years

New Years In Japan
It's hard to explain what New Years is like in Japan. On the one hand, it is a holiday of great religious significance, much like Christmas in the West. However, it is also a shopping day, like Black Friday in the US. Not all stores have bought into the shopping side, choosing to stay closed. Most of the major stores, however, were open. And it is quite an experience, one that everyone who goes to Japan at that time of year needs to understand and participate in.
First things first. Himeji Castle is free on New Years Day. I went online and read that the first 500 people get a free towel, so I rushed my family out so that we could be there by 9:00 when the castle opens. There was a line of maybe a hundred people, but I felt confident I would get a towel.
Problem: the free towel day is January 2nd.
I didn't know that until later, so I was curiously giddy about the possibility of getting a free towel. I don't know why. It's just a towel, and I can probably buy one any time from the many souvenir shops nearby. Maybe it was the “free” part that had me so excited.
Himeji Castle is one of my favorite places in the country. Maybe it's because I lived nearby and spent many hours either in the castle or in the park surrounding. I've walked around the ancient structure countless times, and I can practically blindfolded draw an accurate map of how to get from the station to the castle, identifying the inner moat area, outer moat area, Senhime walk, and Otokoyama, a small hill just west of the fortress.
A couple of years ago, renovations on the castle started, and it is covered by an amazingly complex structure. Inside of that structure is an elevator that takes visitors up to the top of the castle's exterior. You cannot go inside the castle itself at the moment. That has kept many visitors away. And Himeji Castle is something to see, with many points from which you can take some spectacular photographs.
However, in my lifetime I will never again get the chance to see the renovation process on such an ancient structure. Certainly, the interior of the castle is beautiful and very stark. But there are other such buildings in Japan that visitors can go inside of. Where else can you see a centuries old building being restored? Looking at the roof of the castle was in itself worth the cost of admission (which I didn't pay, but I digress). It is truly the chance of a lifetime, and while, as a Trip Advisor travel expert on Himeji, I've encouraged foreign visitors to see the castle at all costs, my feeling is that the number of visitors has dropped off. I saw very few, compared to other times I've been to the castle.
The elevator up reveals the exterior of the castle, and it is sobering to think that I'm looking at parts of the building that, for hundreds of years, very few saw from such a perspective. The exhibits show the old roof tiles and explain the process of putting the new ones on. There are two floors with things to look at. Plastering was never something I thought of, but I now have a greater appreciation for what goes into creating the exterior walls of such ancient structures. There is also a timeline of the restorations over the centuries, as well as the many problems the castle has faced, including nearly being destroyed by both time and human progress. And the quarters inside the west bailey are open, and that is in many ways my favorite part of the castle.
One small criticism is that the military history of the castle is reduced to one room of samurai armor. It is a castle, built with a single purpose: to be the biggest, strongest stronghold in the region. It was never attacked, so formidable were its walls. I believe that is worth explaining, if not flat out bragging about.
From Himeji we went to Sosha, a shrine near the castle (not to be confused with Shosha, a mountain temple/shrine complex several miles northwest of the city). Many merchants had booths open, selling everything from airsoft rifles to sweets to baked corn. (I blinked a little at the airsoft rifles; it's not quite a part of the image I have of Japan.) We bought some small baked cakes called Castella, a favorite of ours. We wanted to see the actual shrine, but there was a long line to get in, and since none of us are Shinto followers, we didn't see the need. My wife's sister was in line with her family, so we said hello to them and then moved on.
On the way to the shopping street we passed an elderly lady and her son. We happened to hear her mention that she was ninety years old, so we stopped to talk for a minute, complimenting her on her energy to get out and walk to the shrine at such an advanced age. Then I said she didn't look a day over seventy, and as we walked away she was still laughing about that, saying that I had made her day. That made mine, too. If we can bring even a little joy into someone's life, then we should.
Here's the deal. Most stores will have bags of goods for sale at certain prices, usually in the 10,000 yen range. Usually you don't know what's inside. The store might give you a general idea; for example, they'll say that there's a jacket, sweater, scarf, and gloves, but you have no idea what colors or designs. If the product is something that is dependent on size, the bag will say L or M, and will tell you what gender the products are for.
I wanted to get the Mont Bell bag, but they didn't have my size.
On the way home we saw bags at most stores, including the eyeglass stores and coffee shops. We didn't think to go by Mister Donuts.
Later that day we went out again with my sister-in-law and her family. Other than some bread, we didn't buy anything.
Back home, we decided to go to the Sports Authority store a couple of miles up the road. It was crazy crowded, so I stayed in the car while my wife and son went inside. They came out, took my credit card, then went back in and came back a short time later with an Under Armor bag. My son loves Under Armor. It was a pretty good deal He did the math and decided that, for 10,000 yen, he got about 30,000 yen worth of goods (and that was using the sale price, not the full price). It was his money, and it was well spent.
That evening we again ate okonomiyaki, this time prepared at home by my father-in-law. He had a couple of bad illnesses in the past year, and I think it has made a change in him. He no longer smokes, and is much more active in cooking and cleaning. Life works out that way sometimes. We need reminders of why we live.

The days run together

Day …
The days start to blur together a bit when you're settling into a home life. Our first day back we again spent with an old friend. That's a common theme when you go a-visiting. It was rainy for several days, and time was spent freely. Walking the shopping street. Bowling with my father-in-law and my sister-in-law's family. Lots of time spent with my nieces, making up for over two years of time we didn't get to see them. On the only sunny day of the week I walked over ten miles. I didn't really go anywhere, just walked to see what I could see. Along the way I saw the military base, the horse track (they're across from one another; there's probably a message there). I saw two children who were of mixed race, much like my son, except their father was black. I wanted to ask who their father is, because many years ago, when foreigners were much more of a rarity in Himeji, there was a black man that I frequently saw out riding his bike or just “around” town, and I was curious if he was their father. But, as I thought about it, I realized that I never really learned his name, and I only knew him as the guy from Yale that lived in Himeji and was also black and rode bike. In retrospect, it's a shame I didn't take time to say hello to him, though we waved when we saw one another.
I also saw a wide swath of open land that I honestly spent an obscene amount of time looking at, envisioning the house that could be built, with the small workshop/factory that existed serving as my own hobby shop. Which is weird, because I can't even accomplish that small feat in America, where land is relatively cheap and jobs relatively plentiful.
On New Years Eve we went to Ako Onsen.
An onsen is a hot spring. Which is different than a public bath, in that the former is naturally heated water, and the latter is artificially heated. Otherwise, it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two, and there is something of a scandal with places claiming to be onsen but really heating the water themselves. Personally I don't care too much, though I understand that some people really believe the healing effects of the onsen water, so they're upset when people claim it's natural when it isn't. It's kind of like when Coca Cola said the water they sold was mineral water, when in reality they just got it from the tap.
Ako is natural. The town is famous for a couple of things. First is the salt. I didn't know this until we went there, but salt is a really big deal there. You can buy bags of the salt, taken from the water or from algae, which I am both intrigued by and at the same time somewhat repulsed, mainly because I think of algae as the stuff that got on my fishing line whenever I fished in our pond, and I cannot imagine eating it or anything related to it. Ako also has a strong history. There is a great story of the 47 ronin that I think most history buffs would enjoy. The gist of the story is this: a feudal lord was ordered to commit seppuku (ritual suicide, with the man sticking a sword in his belly and ripping open his guts) because of a slight to another lord; his retainers, now lord-less, became ronin, or masterless samurai, and then went out to get revenge in order to save the reputation of their lord as well as themselves. The lord was from Ako, and the remains of the castle, as well as the connected shrine (Oishi), are interesting places to visit.
Unfortunately for us, the castle was closed, and the shrine is pretty small. And it's winter. Really cold. So we didn't see the historical side of Ako.
We did see the onsen, which is the other thing the region is famous for.
It snowed on our drive there. Literally the only clouds in the entire region were in the small area we drove through (Aioi), and it snowed. Not much, and it didn't stick. But I found that really weird. All around us the sky was blue. Above us it was dark. And snowing.
An onsen is something every visitor to Japan should experience. For that matter, a sento (public bath) is a good substitute. But an onsen is truly different, especially for Americans. For one thing, we're not a society that has a strong tradition of nudity in front of others. If you played sports in school, you showered with other. It isn't quite the same thing. You really have to throw out your inhibitions if you want to take a bath with someone of your same gender. The tubs aren't small. You're not rubbing hips or anything. But you are naked, with a small towel to cover anything you want to cover. And you do generally have to wash yourself in front of others, which is odd the first time you do it.
Personally I love onsen. I don't care if you're naked. Soaking in a 110 degree or hotter bath is wonderfully relaxing. The best way to experience an onsen is to stay there, so that you can soak in the tub and then go to sleep. Sleeping after a good, hot onsen soak is spectacular. Especially if it's a place that serves alcohol, and you can get good Japanese sake while you're soaking in the tub.
We didn't stay in Ako. Our trip was only for the day, together with my two nieces. We soaked for an hour or so and left. An onsen on the ocean should (if it's a good place) have a rotenburo – an outside bath. And that rotenburo should be on the ocean, so that you can sit in the tub and look out at the ocean. Ako has that. In the distance was Shodoshima, a famous island that is on my bucket list to visit. In the distance, Shikoku, one of the four main islands that makes up Japan, another place on the bucket list. In between Shikoku and the main island (called Honshu) is the Inland Sea, one of the busiest waterways in the world (so I've always been told, anyway), a deep-water channel that offers protection for ships from the large storms that sweep up from the south. To large cargo ships were anchored far off the coast, and I figured their crew was sitting there with high powered binoculars looking at the baths, which was fine, because I doubt they were looking at me.
After the onsen we went to eat okonomiyaki. The restaurant has a large stove in the table, and they brought the pre-cooked food out to finish cooking in front of us. We ordered butter corn as well as several different types of okonomiyaki.
Everywhere was surprisingly not crowded. It was the day before a major holiday. Granted, it was something of a long weekend for many people. But I still expected more cars on the roads. It was a speed limit drive back to Himeji. We dropped off our nieces and spent some time with my sister-in-law and her husband. They're both very funny, smart people, and being around them is pleasant. I had plans for the evening, so we left, stopping at a shopping center on the way home so my wife could get a hair dryer and my son some snacks. The store is somewhat akin to a Wal Mart, or maybe Kmart, in that it is an older store and slightly lower priced for essentially the same goods. We head home, and I borrow money from my son, because we didn't get to the bank to exchange more money, and the banks won't be open until the fourth. That includes the ATMs which I find interesting in a society that is essentially driven by cash.
In the evening I met a friend from Nashville. He is an MD specializing in internal medicine, particularly sepsis. We play soccer together, and he's an avid runner, something I very much admire and cannot at all understand. On New Years Eve, Japan is very different than the US, in that no place is open late. It is very much like Christmas Eve in America, or maybe Thanksgiving, though neither analogy is completely accurate. Suffice it to say that not many places are open in the evening. We settled on a place that serves a variety of things, primarily thinly sliced beef that you quickly fry at the table. The owner told us it was the beef from a champion steer, and he wouldn't say from where, except to say that it wasn't Miyazaki or Kobe. He was very proud of the meat, having gone and personally bought it. The meat was finely marbled, and was very delicious. Was it worth the expense? Maybe not. But when you're with a friend, drinking and having good conversation, sometimes it's best to not think of things in terms of a cost-benefit analysis. It is enough that you can be together, that you can talk about a variety of things, and smile and laugh.
My friend came by bus, and there are some schedules (like the bus') that you have to adhere to if you want to get home. The night ended much too early. I went back to the apartment, recounted the day, and went to sleep early.