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.