Saturday, May 13, 2017

Suma

Some days you don't understand why you want what you want. Maybe it's ice cream. Or a beer. Maybe it's a short walk or a long movie. But that's what you want and it doesn't matter if it gels with any other thing in your life. Like a plaid shirt and a striped tie. It feels like the right thing to do, and whatever it is propelling you forward, you have to heed it or else you'll feel incomplete.

That's why I went to Suma. Because it felt like the right thing to do.

I cannot count the number of times I've been through that station, on a rapid express that zipped through on its way to somewhere more important, train-schedule-wise. The little town (little being relative in Japan) is squeezed between hills and ocean. I didn't have a very firm plan; I might go to the beach, I might go to the temple, I might find something else to do.

My trip was not on the Japan Rail train; I didn't have a rail pass and needed to budget my money, so I took the Sanyo line. Personally I prefer that line; it runs through a more blue-collar area. There is some interesting psychology as to why I like that, the rural areas, places where struggle is an every day thing, why it appeals to me. When I lived in Japan, I often went to that area, to Shosekiheki, a small seaside cliff that has some really good climbing; I spent hours and days discovering routes there, baking in the sun. In later years I went with my father in law to paraglide, though I long ago gave up that sport for reasons I don't know.

First, though, I did a couple of other trips I have been wanting to do.

Just east of Himeji is the city of Kakogawa. Located in the city is a temple that gets far too little foot traffic: Kakurenji. This temple is beautiful, and they were prepping for New Years. In some ways, that's a better time to go to a temple or shrine, because you get to see all of the work that goes into the celebration. You see the love and care, the passion that the volunteers have. And they are mostly volunteers, members of the community doing their part.







I spent an hour in the temple, including their small museum. It was, I realized, the very reason I was out and about that day: to just do what I felt, and I had felt like going to that temple.

Then I did the only thing I had actually planned to do that day: went and played disc golf.

Anyone familiar with my other blogs knows my passion for this sport; I don't play it as much as I want, because I have no course near my home that isn't crowded, and I have little patience for crowded courses.

What is cool about the course is that it is built in a park that's on an old shrine ruin. How awesome is that? It was not clearly marked, and I spent a lot of time hunting for the tees and baskets. Other than that, the layout was very well done. It is in my top five courses.




From the disc golf course, I walked the two miles to the Sanyo station, where I took the train to Suma. I exited Suma station and walked towards the beach. Almost immediately I was sidetracked by Coppenhagen Suma: a Danish hot dog restaurant.

Years ago - more than I can think about - I knew of this place. I was an associate editor at a magazine, my boss a hilarious, brilliant British man named David Jack; he was an old-timer, a foreigner (gaijin) salty and prone to giving us newcomers a difficult time. But he employed me, promoted me, and had I gone back to Japan, would have probably helped me lead the magazine; that was a plan we discussed over beer, and maybe it was just the beer. But the way regret works, I've built up this grand mythology of what that life would have looked like, me the editor, me the salty old man giving the newcomers a hard time along with a chance to succeed.

During those years I heard of Hansen; he was in Okayama then, and when I went to Okayama to climb, I was told to go seek him out, because in those days there weren't many foreigners in Okayama. I didn't, but, later, when his restaurant moved to Suma, I thought about going. And then I forgot about it.

I walked in and the young lady working there, who I learned later spoke English, did the one thing every language learner wants: she assumed I spoke Japanese, which I do, and we communicated in Japanese. Then I met Hansen, a tall, slender man who is almost impossibly Caucasian. We chatted about his move to Suma more than a dozen years ago, the area, his thoughts, etc. I got a hot dog and enjoyed it immensely.

I didn't go to the beach; there was no pull to do so, even though it was just a short distance away. It was a gut-feeling sort of day, and that wasn't what my gut wanted me to do.

Walking up the hill, I followed the signs to Suma Temple - Suma-dera, in Japanese. I'll let you figure out which word translates as temple.

On the way I passed a famous Kara-age chicken restaurant. For those unfamiliar, this is basically fried chicken nuggets, but oh-so-much-better. I took an order to go, planning to eat it at the temple. I bought an oolong tea at a convenience store and proceeded up the hill.

Suma Temple is ancient, and plays a significant role in The Tale of Genji, one of the world's first actual novels. I ate lunch in a park as planned, and wandered the temple for over an hour. It's not that expansive, not really, but like Kakurenji, there was preparation going on for New Years, and I absorbed that activity before walking back to the station.







Sunday, February 12, 2017

Kyoto is for lovers (of crowds)

Maybe it's because we were there on a weekend. But Kyoto has become a bit of a miserable place due to the crowds.

That's a really negative way to open up a post about one of Japan's most famous towns.

The day started at Kyoto Station. Our rail pass allowed us to make the trip from Himeji quickly on the bullet train. We walked the mile from the station to Sanjusangendo, a famous temple where, a few hundred years ago, Miyamoto Musashi fought a famous duel. There's not much to the walk. Leave Kyoto Station's north side where Aqua Fantasy is. Turn right (east). Keep the tracks over your right shoulder, in sight - you don't have to walk directly beside the tracks. Try to be on Shiokoji Dori; this takes a bit of navigation, I guess, but with a basic map and basic map skills it's easy. Cross the river and head up the hill. Shiokoji Dori goes up the east side of Sanjusangendo.

When you go to Kyoto, you better have a bit of money set aside for the entry fees to the temples and shrines; we've been so often that we don't have to go inside too many. One thing you learn is that they are all very similar, with a couple of exceptions, and we're lucky to have years during which to visit the historic places. Also, there are some great temples and shrines in other parts of the country that are free; when I feel a need to get my Zen on, I can go to one of those.

Anyway, we arrived at our destination. Longer than a football field, Rengeo-in (the more formal name for the temple) is the largest wooden structure in the country. It is difficult to remember sometimes that what a tourist might see as a "tourist destination" is, to many, a religious experience. I felt that in the temple.

From there we walked to the area around Kiyomizu Temple. We didn't actually go in any more temples; it's pricey, and I've been to them all before. Besides, there are many free (or cheaper) temples and shrines all over the country that are just as pretty, just as historic.

Here's the thing about Kyoto, though. In that day of walking around, we never had a moment's peace. The one constant were the people. Everywhere. Shops. The alleys. The streets. The parks. Once upon a time you could walk the streets of historic Kyoto and feel a bit of that old time magic, so to speak, a relaxing vibe. Only once or twice did we get to a spot where, for a moment, it felt like Kyoto of old. Then we'd turn a corner and the crowds were back.

We headed for a coffee shop that had some great reviews. As we approached, in disbelief I looked at the line of fifty people waiting to order. Sitting down was out of the question. We walked away. It's just coffee, and I've had excellent coffee before; there was no need to wait in line for what can easily be had in other coffee shops.

I'll be fair: I hate crowds. And tourists are good for business, and that's good for Japan.

We ended the day with the quick bullet train ride home. There wasn't much conversation. Jet lag, exhaustion from walking around all day, the rhythm of the train. Some combination of those things made it easier to sit and star out the window.


Sunday, January 15, 2017

Kobe: It's not just for shopping. But that's all we did.

We had a few days left on our rail pass, and decided to go to Kobe.

That's the beauty of a rail pass. People distill it down to an economics issue, and there is absolutely a breaking point where the value isn't worth the cost. But value isn't simply a financial equation. It reflects what you get for the money. When you buy a rail pass, you suddenly can do pretty much whatever you want. Is it raining? Well, instead of that trip to visit a temple, go instead to the aquarium. It is a pre-budgeted item, so changing plans doesn't break the bank.


Kobe is a medium size city just west of Osaka. It's part of the greater Osaka urban footprint, that endless urban sprawl. Most people unfamiliar with the geography have no idea that they've actually left one city and transitioned to another, passing through a few others along the way. Such distinctions are for the tax collectors and census takers. In reality, it makes no difference. It's almost like you could jump from building to building, never touching the ground, from Osaka all the way to points west.

The main Japan Rail (JR) line has two main stations in Kobe: Kobe and Sannomiya. (Shin Kobe is where the shinkansen stops; it's removed from the center of the city, close to the mountain.) In between those two is Motomachi. Just south of this station is Kobe's Chinatown. It's a few blocks, running primarily along one street. As Chinatowns go, its sub-par. There is very little feeling that you've entered an ethnically different place. But they try, and luckily they mostly try by having some excellent dumplings and other Chinese food. There is a common thought that you can tell the quality of a restaurant by the line of people waiting to go in. I don't believe that, not entirely; there's truth there, to be sure, but I am convinced that if I took a mediocre restaurant and paid twenty people to line up for a couple of Saturdays, I would reap ten fold that investment as everybody else stood in line.

In Chinatown, though, every store had a line, more or less. Sometimes it was long, sometimes short, but there was no option to just walk up and get something to eat. I got a Kobe beef dumpling; it was wonderful.

From Chinatown it is easy to get to some very long, very crowded (with stores, as well as people) shopping streets that have everything you can possibly imagine. We shopped quite a bit, but mostly we did nothing of real, tangible, blog-worthy value. Too often people travel to accomplish something. Go to this place, eat that, see where so-and-so did such-and-such. There's nothing wrong with that. I once spent a day in Paris visiting all of the places where the movie Amelie was filmed (or as many as I could get to). That's not the only way to travel, though. Every trip, or every vacation, should have a day of doing nothing of substance. At least one. Maybe more, or multiple days that include that element.

After a visit to Tokyu Hands and some more mindless wandering, we went home.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Miyajima - 2

We were all awake well before sunrise. It was unseasonably warm outside, the rain gone and the sky clear, so we decided to go see what sunrise looked like around the torii.

My son planned to get a time lapse video of the sun hitting the shrine; the sun would be rising off to the right of the east-northeast facing gate, as we faced it. He wandered around planning where would be best to do that. My wife, camera mounted on tripod, looked for good angles. I sat and looked out over the Inland Sea. That waterway is one of the world's most traveled, deep water channels protected by the forces of the Pacific. The torii wasn't illuminated at that time of morning.I found myself wondering at what time the lights went off, if it was automated. Or did someone have to turn them off manually, the sort of daily ritual that provides patterns to life's fabric? That's the sort of useless information that I squirrel away until needed for some obscure reason.

As I sat, pondering, I heard a commotion behind me. I turned, expecting to see my wife in some trouble; she was obviously excited about something. It was dark. A tall man was standing next to her, and I couldn't make out his or my wife's faces. I walked over, saw that she was smiling broadly, the very smile that I fall in love with just about every time I see it.

Years ago we had a friend in Nashville, a doctor from Tokyo, very intelligent man, a triathlete, runner, father and husband and friend. I met him once in Japan after he returned to his father (now, unfortunately, deceased)  who lived hear Himeji. We maintained contact via social media. He has always been a friend.

And there, on an island more than five hundred miles from Tokyo, thousands of miles away from Tennessee, was our old friend.

Turns out he had to give a presentation in Hiroshima the night before, and came on the first train and ferry to Miyajima. We talked about our lives, his trip, our trip. My son didn't really remember him; they only met a few times, and the boy had been a preteen the last time our friend saw him.

Together we went into the shrine after the sun rose. As with old friends and chance encounters, our conversation covered broad topics. Yes, he still ran, though not as much as he wanted. No, I don't play soccer much any more.

After a couple of hours, we had reached a point that required us to part. He was heading up Mt. Misen; we needed to go back to our inn for breakfast. It's a small island, I said. Maybe we'll meet again.

We didn't.

After breakfast we went back to the shrine for their celebration of the Emperor's birthday.

Those things fascinate me much more than anyone else in my family. I can quite literally sit in a temple or shrine for hours on end, fascinated to think about whose feet have walked the ancient passages, whose eyes shared the views, and how would those ancients feel about the changes made over the years? The priests played their screeching music. Here is a sample of the sounds.


I felt bad taking pictures; it's weird photograph someone's religious rituals. But it was fascinating, so while I didn't take as many as most, I did take a few, in the name of blogging. When that ended, I walked outside the shrine, waiting on the ceremonial dancing to start. Workers were busy repairing some of the columns,  taking advantage of the good weather and low tide. For ten minutes I watched them, aware that they were doing tasks handed down to them for generations. I don't know where my family went during that time; somewhere along the waterfront.

I found a place to sit with my feet dangling over the muddy ground, the tide nearing its low ebb, the gate and shrine supports fully exposed. It was crowded. My wife and son had rejoined me, and we watched three dances. I really wanted to appreciate the art of it all, but much like the ritual music a little earlier, I found it a struggle. Maybe I need to understand the why of it all in or to appreciate the craft.

Up the hill is the slightly larger Daiganji temple. It's a famous place, reached only after walking up a long flight of steps. There are many statues with knitted caps or scarves. At one of the halls, there is a completely dark passage.

Completely. Dark.

I'm not a huge fan of that level of darkness. And maybe had I known what I was going into, I might have held back. But I live a YOLO life. Here and there there are some Buddhist images lit up. I'm sure there is deep meaning to those, beyond the simple truth I gained: sometimes in the absence of light, we must walk towards that little we find ahead of us, but always move forward, always step carefully in the dark, confident in the light.

Or something like that.

When my wife and son did the maze-like circuit (not an actual maze, but you don't really know that when you're on those winding passages), they bumped into the people ahead of them, who evidently were more interested in the Buddhist messages than they were.

The day could have lasted forever. There's so much to explore on that island, where there are few cars, few permanent residents. Miles and miles of hiking trails. Numerous historical landmarks. Great views. Calm. Peace.

We walked around some more, bought souvenirs, then headed to the ferry. On the far side of the channel, we ate a very simple lunch bought at a convenience store. Rice balls (onigiri), mine with tuna, my son and wife choosing salmon. It cost us around six US dollars to eat, including a bottle of tea. For all that people complain about the cost of travel in Japan, it can be done very cheaply. Especially food.

Around sunset, we arrived back in Himeji at the apartment. In only a couple of days that small fifth floor abode had become home, a place to return to, a place to appreciate and enjoy. It is deeply unfair - on many levels - that all of that is true.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Miyajima - 1

A short distance west of Hiroshima, accessible by ferry, Japan Rail (JR), or the local Hiroshima Dentetsu (electric line), is a place worth the effort to visit. Where the Hiroshima Peace Museum brought on very understandable - and important - feelings of sadness, Miyajima is a place of great peace. There are a number of hotels, a lot of tourist souvenir shops, and quite a few restaurants. One supermarket. No convenience stores. One campground. Ferry service that runs from around five in the morning until before eleven in the evening; miss that last boat, and you're stuck.

For someone looking to get away from things, it is perfect.

We ate lunch near the train station; the island's prices are a little bit higher, and we would spend more for dinner by saving on lunch. One of the ferries is a JR company, so the rail pass covers the ride across. The boat passes by the large torii (gate) that the island is famous for.

Our inn was a place called Sakuraya. I picked it based on a combination of reviews and availability. There was no dinner plan like you get with a lot of Japanese ryokan; but it was still a Japanese style room, quite affordable, and located close to both the ferry as well as the touristy street and the shrine.

We were too early to check in, but they let us leave our bags while we wandered around. The inn had umbrellas we could take with us. It wasn't a good day for sightseeing; but we did it anyway.

Technically, the island's name is Itsukushima; that's also the name of the shrine that is the predominant sight people go to see.

We didn't go inside the shrine; we planned on doing that the next day, which was the Emperor's


birthday. Instead, we took a handful of pictures of the gate and walked up to the five story pagoda and the large temple there: Senjokaku. It is dedicated to the Toyotomi family; Hideyoshi was one of the three great warlords responsible for unifying Japan. The temple is, I guess, actually a shrine, since it is used for Shinto rituals; it is the largest structure on the island, technically incomplete. It is located on a hill that once was the headquarters of the Sue (suu-eh) clan, who were defeated in 1555, over thirty years before the monk Eikei asked that nearby Daiganji temple build a large Buddhist library. It is a beautiful place, wide open on the interior, an expansive, dark place that invites reflection, brings about a peaceful feeling just by its very existence.

My son and I laid down on the broad, wide open floor of the temple, looking up at the rafters, admiring the complex craftsmanship that goes into joining massive beams. Temple staff didn't exactly know what to think of that. They said nothing in English, but I could overhear them murmuring in a good natured way about why we were lying down. In the end, their speculation was partially correct; in truth we were dead tired and the coolness of centuries-old wood flooring was more comfortable than you might think. They wondered if they should do something; I told my son that I hoped that they didn't. I probably I should have sat up or walked around, but I'm dead certain that Enkei would approve of finding peace within those walls. He himself was a warrior monk who met a tough end after choosing the wrong side in the decisive battles for Japan's unification. Enkei followed the Rinzai school of Buddhism; meditation is a strong force in that sect. I cannot meditate, not really; I've tried. but I got pretty close in Senjokaku.

Then, the rain stopped and the sky lightening ever so slightly, we walked up towards the cable car, only to find it closed, which we expected because of the rain. I wanted to go to the top of Mt. Misen; it is a short hike from the top of the cable car, a long hike from the bottom, especially in the rain. There would be no awe-inspiring view anyway; the mountain was socked in by clouds. We walked around the shops, tasted some local delicacies, and found our way back to our inn.

Checked in, we relaxed for a bit. Jet lag had come on full throttle. My son fell asleep and murmured that he didn't want to go eat, which I didn't feel was true. It was the jet lag speaking. We ordered our breakfast (an extra 500 yen), then my wife and I headed out.

First stop was the only grocery store on the island. It closes in the early evening, so we wanted to do our best (as parents) to get our son some food to eat. There weren't a lot of choices. It truly is meant as a store for the locals. Most inns offer dinner, or people go out to eat. It's rare to not have a meal included in your inn, but we booked fairly last minute, and honestly we wanted to eat out anyway. The island is famous for its eel. I personally don't like eel; my wife does, and I have simple tastes. It's rare that I cannot find something to eat in a restaurant. When in doubt, I can pull the "I'm a vegetarian" line and see what they come up with.

We got him some bread and rice balls (onigiri), which he and I both will always eat when nothing else is available (or even if something else is available; they're awesome).

From the grocers we walked to see the shrine and gate all lit up.

A couple of things about the shrine. When the tide is in, it looks like it's floating. Sort of. Like a lot of things in life, you have to use a little imagination, but it's built on posts buried into the tidal soil. The large orange gate, too, is covered by the sea most of the time; only when the tide is out can you walk up to the large pillars.

At night it was beautiful, rain and all. I held the umbrella for my wife as she took photographs. I can still see that gate with the dark sea surrounding it. Few ventured out in the bad weather.

There's only so much to do in the dark when most of the streets are closed. My wife had picked out a restaurant, and we made our way there.

I have to admit I was a little shocked - and more than a little envious - that the owner was a foreigner; American or Canadian, judging by the accent (or lack thereof). It was a quaint place. I ordered ramen. I got a little miffed when the American/Canadian man came over and scolded me for not eating my noodles quickly enough. Because I tend to push back when pushed, I ate even more slowly. I've eaten more ramen than I want to admit to, from little dives near train stations to famous restaurants that have been on television. At no point has anyone told me I was eating ramen wrong. I paused to take a sip of water, because wanted a sip of water, and he took that to be some sort of offense, because he told me the noodles will soak up the liquid and that's not good. To hell with that. I will eat them as I eat them; drink water as I drink water.

My wife and I went to the public bath in the hotel; I had the place to myself. It was just one large tub. A dozen or so showers lined the walls. I soaked. And as I soaked, I thought of James. James who was an unabashedly rude foreigner. James who liked to tell people we bathed naked together in Japan. James who I shot guns with, argued with, made plans with. James whose death in October of 2016 has forever changed my view of Japan, because he was my moral guidepost. Not a compass; I know right from wrong. He just helped me find it when I was lost. And now I find I'm always lost.

I slept and had bad dreams.