grey marble

December 10, 2007

(Not so) alone in Kyoto

I arrived in Kyoto on the shinkansen from Okayama. I had rearranged my tickets and arrived in town earlier than I had planned. At the ryokan there was no one to meet me. While I waited I called my friend from a payphone, dropping 100 yen coins in by the handful. She said she was free that night and we made arrangements to meet. She said she'd find me at the hotel.

I spent the afternoon walking around the area near my ryokan. I had booked a place near the Kawaramachi street and the river. The main shopping area was a few minutes walk north, and the Gion was just to the west. I wandered the old quarter of Gion and made my way to the Yasaka shrine, passing the Minamaza kabuki theater and various shops along the way. I remembered the last time I had come, almost exactly a year to the day.

As the hour of my appointment drew near, I went back to the ryokan to bathe. The guidebook had remarked upon its wooden bath and I was eager to try it out. Unfortunately, I was too early for a bath and had to settle for a shower.

My friend walked with me by the canal in search of a restaurant. When we finally found it, we discovered it was under renovation. Later, she would tell me that the inside of the restaurant looked like the bath house in Spirited Away and I lamented the fact that it was closed. We walked along the street and chose a pan-Asian restaurant overlooking the river. The waiter sat us and we ordered a set meal.

I joked that the restaurant was apropos since we were pan-Asian ourselves. She was Japanese, living in Japan, and I was Chinese-American living in New York having just arrived from Taiwan. The food was tasty, each dish originating from a different Asian country, but with a Japanese spin. We chatted and caught each other up on our lives. I mentioned that I had visited Kurashiki and she told me her husband was from near there. Okayama to be specific. She told me that the Okayama accent was harsher than the Kyoto one and joked that she felt he was always yelling at her. I had met her sister in New York and asked how she was. She told me that I'd have the chance to ask her myself at dinner a few days later.

After dinner we went to an Irish bar near the Pontocho-dori. The bar was sparsely populated and we drank our beers in quiet surroundings. Soon, my friend had to leave to attend to her kids. We made tentative plans for dinner on the day after and I promised to call to confirm.

The next day broke clearly and I decided on a whim to tour some temples in the northeastern part of the city. I bought a bus pass and took off for Kinkaku-ji. Almost the entire temple is covered in gold leaf, the temple gleams as it rests above a small pond. The temple was inundated with school groups and I enjoyed watching the schoolchildren take photos of each other almost as much as I enjoyed the temple itself. I had remembered Hello Kitty charms being sold at one of the stands, and was happy to find they were still being sold there. I bought a few and continued on to the zen temple of Ryoan-ji to visit the rock garden.

By the time I left Ryoan-ji it was getting on towards noon. I went to visit my friend and her sister at work to make plans for dinner the next night. We decided to meet at the Yakasa shrine and then I went to buy tickets to that evening's kabuki performance.

At the theater, I was surprised to find that the show started at 4.20pm. I asked if there were any later show and was told that the 4.20 show ended at 10.20. I shrugged and bought a ticket near the last row. I went home to bathe and then returned to the theater for the performance.

The audience was more subdued in the beginning than I had expected, but as the night wore on they became more and more vocal, calling out their favorite actors' names. At the intermission, I found I was one of the few people who had forgot to bring a bento box. Almost everyone brought a plastic bag out from under their seat and dug into their dinner. I walked around the theatre looking for food. By the time I made it to most counters, the selection was limited.

Back in the theater, I quickly ate my sushi. I had wasted most of the intermissions debating over bento boxes, and halfway throgh my meal the lights dimmed. I sat with my dinner half-finished, entranced by the final play of the evening.
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December 5, 2007

A cut in Takahashi

There are no shortage of barber shops in Takahashi. They seem to dot every other street corner. I was in need of a cut and duly noted the shops as I passed them, intending to inquire as to prices once I had finished touring the town.

I left Hiroshima with Ben, sharing a taxi with him from his house. He was on his way to Osaka and then to China for a business trip, and I was en route to Kyoto by way of Takahashi. At the train station we said our goodbyes as he boarded an earlier shinkansen than I had reserved. We had left early in the morning, and the kids were barely awake. I said my goodbyes to Teresa just as she was waking up.

I changed trains at Okayama, boarding a local to head up into the central mountain region. I was slightly concerned to find the train start running west before it started to head north and asked a woman if the train were headed to Takahashi. She assured me it was.

We both alighted in Takahashi, and on the platform she assailed me with a string of sentences in Japanese. I apologized and said I didn't understand, that I spoke no Japanese. She smiled and said, "No problem?" I laughed and assured her I was ok. She smiled again and left the station.

I booked myself into a small ryokan jjust at the entrance to the main shopping arcade. In my room, I could hear the Christmas carols and western musak they piped through the speakers in the arcade. I arranged my bags in a corner and checked the map given to me by the tourist information booth.

I had come to visit Matsuyama-jo, at 430m above sea level the highest castle in Japan. I walked from my ryokan to the foot of the mountain, stopping by a temple en route. As I walked up along the road, I saw a small sign pointing to a wooded path off to my right. I had been passed a boy who appeared to be surveying the town, but he was too far to ask about the path. I looked at my map and looked again at the path. The path seemed to follow a shorter route, and was far more pictaresque. I left the road and traded trodding on asphalt for fallen leaves.

Halfway up I arrived at a small parking lot. A man was drinking coffee from a vending machine. I walked up beside him and bought a Pocari Sweat. His wife soon appeared from the restrooms just around the bend. I watched them get into their car and drive back down the mountain. I finished my drink, put the can in the recycle bin, and set back off up the mountain.

I passed two older couples descending, but when I arrived at the castle, my only companions were some workers who were repainting the signs. They were on lunch break and barely looked up from their meals as I passed. I bought my ticket at the front gate and walked around the castle, the only sounds the wind through the bare branches around me.

The castle felt moody. The skies were grey and the castle loomed before me. I walked in and toured the exhibits then walked around the keep to the back of the castle grounds. I could see the city down below and the river. On the other side of the mountain I could see small settlements. I took photographs and blew into my hands to keep them warm.

On the way down I ran into two men, one photographing the other with the valley as backdrop. They asked me where I was from and one man asked to have his picture taken with me. I gladly obliged. They were from Okayama on a day trip. As we parted they asked if I wanted to hike with them. They pumped their arms up and down vigorously to indicate their plans. I told them I was already heading down the hill. They wished me luck. I took a photo of them and they asked me if I were shooting film. "Filmu?" they asked. I nodded. They smiled and waved and headed up the mountain.

Back in town, I toured some samurai houses and then looked for a barber. A few quoted me a price of 3000 yen for a buzz cut. I moved on. Finally I found a woman who said she would do it for 1000. I told her I was hungry and was going to get lunch but I would return. She spoke no English and smiled but looked confused. I tried to assure her I'd be back.

I ate some noodles by the train station and returned to the barber shop. The woman had disappeared and a man stood in her place. When I described what I wanted he said 3000 yen. I thanked him and backed out of the store. As I turned to go, I saw the original woman. She smiled at me, but I had no way of explaining to her what had happened. Once again I left her looking confused.

I wandered the streets looking for another barber. All the shops were empty; in some the barbers were napping. Near the canal I found an active shop. I pantomimed what I wanted. The woman circled her scalp with her hand. "Bzzz bzzz?" she asked. I nodded. She said 2000 yen. I said ok. She told me to wait as she finished dyeing her client's hair.

She shooed a dog off the couch and bade me sit down. I didn't wait long as she soon put me in the barber's chair and went off looking for her clippers. When she had finished I touched my hair. I asked her to cut it shorter. I put my thumb to my forefinger to show her. She asked me twice to make sure. She brought out another clipper and cut a small patch. I felt it and asked for shorter. She laughed and pointed to a photo above her mirror of a monk. I smiled and nodded. She laughed. She searched for her shortest blade and went to work. When she was done, she nodded approvingly and opened a drawer before me to reveal a sink where she washed my head.

I paid her and thanked her and walked back into the night, my head cool. I stopped in a tiny restaurant nearby for a bowl of duck noodle soup. A group of students had come before me and sat at a table where a small teapot bubbled above an open flame. I sat at the counter and watched the sole proprietor prepare our meals. She had told me to wait and I had nodded, taking out my journal to record that day's thoughts. The noodles were delicious and after I had finished I was loathe to leave the warmth of the restaurant. I lingered in the corner and listened to the conversations around me, enjoying the small town atmosphere before heading on to Kyoto.
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December 4, 2007

Day trips from Hiroshima

On Sunday, Ben drove us to Kurashiki, a small town noted for its old warehouses lining a small canal. I had planned to travel there independently en route to Kyoto, but Ben had never been and was keen on bringing his family. I told Teresa it was great. I could visit another town on the road to Kyoto. We entered the phone number of a museum in the center of town into the GPS and were soon on our way.

The road was clear, the hills were covered with trees. I remarked to Ben how beautiful the drive was and he agreed. He told me it was the route to his golf course. Traffic was sparse and we made Kurashiki in less time than I would have imagined.

The area of interest was small. We drove past the canal en route to the museum and parked. Busloads of tourists were disembarking at the same time. We hurried ahead, and Ben noted that the groups were full of men.

Teresa found the town overly touristy. It had been preserved, but made somehow antiseptic. The canal area was picturesque, however, with willows lining the paths along the canal. It reminded me of an amalgam of Lijiang and Zhouzhoung in China. We ate at a restaurant by the canal and quickly made our way through the toy museum. Teresa decided to tour the local art museum and I went to the folklore museum, as interesting for being able to walk through one of the old buildings as much for what it held. Ben took the kids to feed the fish in the canal. We made arrangements to meet back at the car at five, but we all ran into each other in the small town far before the appointed time.

On the road to Kurashiki, Ben and I had begun to talk about iPods, and he determined that he was finally going to buy one that day. We got back into the car and made our way back to Hiroshima.

The electronics store was a sensory attack. Everywhere you looked, there were advertisements for products or signs to direct you to other products. You could barely see the products themselves for the text that surrounded everything. Soon the signs devolved into textured patterns, and I just followed Ben to where he needed to go.

The next morning, we sent the kids off to school and Teresa and I walked to the train station and boarded a train bound for Onomichi. The ride was uneventful and I napped en route. The town itself ran along the coastline, rising up a hill as it receded from the sea. It is noted for the hundreds of temples and shrines that dot the town, some hidden down small alleys and lanes. Directors have long used the town as settings for their films for its narrow streets and for its atmosphere, and local tourists walk the tourist path seeking out locations used in famous scenes.

We set out from the train station along the path and soon found ourselves deep in the warren of streets that run through the town. We had climbed uphill and from certain vantage points we could see the sea. At one point we took a ropeway up to the top of the mountain, and then we could see the entire town below us, tumbling towards the inland sea. We ate ice cream as we enjoyed the view.

Walking back down the hill we made our way to the main covered market, searching for food. We had read about the local ramen, which had achieved some notoriety in Japan, and went off in search of a restaurant recommended for its preparation of it. We found it down a main street running perpendicular to the market street and were surprised to find no line. We ordered in the front and took our seats. The noodles were delicious, the stock being a blend of fish and pork seasoned with fat.

After lunch we walked back up the hill to tour a few more temples and soak in the atmosphere and then made our way back towards the main part of town. Walking past the restaurant, we noticed a line had begun to form; we had just had our lunch early. We walked back to the train station along the coast, which was more a series of working docks for fishermen, with boats tied to the docks, rather than a tourist promenade. We caught an early train back to Hiroshima and bought delicious mochi cream snacks in the basement of the Takashimaya department store before going home to greet the kids.
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December 3, 2007

Lost in Miyajima

On Saturday, Ben drove us out to Miyajima, less than an hour away. From atop Mt. Misen, you can see their building back in Hiroshima.

We took the ferry across the straight to the island. The tide was low, and the famous floating O-Torii was grounded. We walked along the shore towards the torii as deer sniffed at the tourists, hoping for handouts.

We descended from the path down to the sandy beach and followed the people up to the gate. Barnacles were encrusted up to the water mark. People had wedged coins in among the crustaceans. A small spit of sand edged out into the sea, and people walked along its narrow width to take photos of the torii, with the Itsukushima-jinja shrine marking the background.

The tide was coming in, but I didn't notice until almost too late. Justin called out to me and I could see them close to the torii. The narrow spit that connected the small island I stood upon was becoming overrun. I remembered stories from Brittany of the tide running in like horses stranding people on other islands off the coast and I quickly made my way back to shore.

At the Itsukushima-jinja, a ceremony was under way and we stopped to watch. People lined up to watch the clergy make their offerings, bringing bowls and trays out from the sides of the shrine, and bringing them forward. We watched until it was over, the process they had begun then being redone in reverse.

Continuing along the shore, we toured various shrines and temples. For lunch we stopped at a popular small eatery and had soba and rice balls with eel. The broth was delicious.

Continuing onwards, we made our way up to Daisho-in, a large temple complex they had not yet visited. Pilgrims mixed in with the tourists, making offerings and turning the prayer wheels as they walked in and amongst the shrines. Incense filled the air.

From the temple, we walked along a wooded path to the ropeway leading up the mountain. We paid for our tickets and climbed in. Ben warned his kids not to goof off, and soon we were on our way up the first ropeway. Just past the midway point, we changed from the circular ropeway to a shorter back and forth ropeway. The car had just arrived and we quickly made our way into the new cabin.

From the top of the ropeway, we walked up to the observation area. The views of the surrounding islands and inlets was stunning. Oyster beds dotted the coves. Below, I could see beaches and almost turqoise waters lapping at them. I asked Ben if you could swim; he said he didn't know.

We continued on to Mt. Misen. I looked back and saw Ben following and so I walked on ahead making my quickly over the wooded path and climbing up to a set of shrines, one of which contains the pot said to be used by the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi simmering over a flame that has burned since he lit it in the 8th cenutry. It is from this flame that the Peace Park cenotaph takes its fire.

I waited to see if Ben and his family were on their way. After 5 minutes I decided to push to the top of Mt. Misen. There were just a few more hundred meters of stairs to go, and at the top I perched myself atop a flat right beside the path. A group of older mountaineers had stopped on a nearby rock and were cooking ramen for their lunch. I took out my journal and began writing. The sun came out from the clouds and warmed me as I wrote, glancing off the water and filling the inland sea with light.

As I finished I looked at my watch. 45 minutes had gone by, and I had yet to see my cousin and his family. I had assumed they would walk slower, having two kids, but it seemed to be too long of a wait. I walked around the observatory area and looked for them, then walked along a back route down to Daishi's shrine to see if they were there. There was no sign of them. I scrambled back up to the top of the mountain and asked any foreign tourist if they had encountered an Asian family speaking English. One woman told me she had encountered many families but none that spoke English.

I walked back down from the summit and made my way to the ropeway, but I didn't see them. I walked back up to the summit, which was starting to empty of tourists. I checked my watch and saw that the last car down was leaving in an hour. The sun was already starting to set. I wondered if they had decided to walk down. I started to worry something had happened to the kids. I bought a ticket for the ropeway to see if I could find them in the park. It seemed to take an eternity.

At the base station I found a phone and called their home. I told them where I was and that I was heading to the ferry to see if they were there. They had tickets to go ice skating at 6.30 and so I told them that if we didn't find each other that they should go on back to Hiroshima and that I would find my way back myself.

At the ferry, Justin ran out. Teresa followed shortly after. They had never reached the summit but had waited at Daisho's shrine while I was waiting at the top. By the time I made it back to the ropeway, they had moved to the bottom. When I walked back to the summit, they had gone to the ferry. We seemed to just miss each other each time we were waiting in different places. They had involved the police and had made an announcement in town, an announcement I had not heard since I was traversing the top of the mountain.

I apologized profusely, but everything was alright. They had worried something had happened to me, but the officials had assured them that nothing had ever gone wrong atop the mountain. We took the next ferry back to the mainland and drove home. Ben's GPS system chirped the directions merrily as we went, assuring us we would not be lost.
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December 2, 2007

A few days in Hiroshima

My cousin lives in an apartment on the 39th floor of the tallest building in western Honshu. The balcony that curves around a of the building overlook the downtown area straight to the inland sea. In the haze of the afternoon, the mountains that form the islands in the bay looked ghostly in the distance. The apartment itself appears as though it could have stepped right out of Lost in Translation.

I arrived in Hiroshima on the Shinkansen. I assumed that I would be able to spot the building from the train station, but I walked out of the wrong exit. A hotel blocked my view. The taxi attendant didn't seem to know the name of the building when I said it in English, and so I asked a woman at the hotel if she spoke English. When I described the building, she looked confused. "For tourist?" she asked. I explained to her that my cousin lived there. She nodded in comprehension and found a taxi for me, directing the driver to my destination. At $7US for less than 2km, it was the most expensive cab ride I have ever taken.

My cousin's wife Teresa and her kids (Jillian and Justin) met me in the lobby, then took me up the glass elevator to their floor. The interior of the apartment building reminded me of a New York hotel. The center was hollow, and from the interior balcony you could see straight down to the ventilation fans on the 12th floor. We spent a little time catching up in her dining room and she offered me the most delicious clementines I have ever had.

That afternoon we toured a nearby museum with an impressive roster of artists, and then walked the Shukkei-en gardens. A bride and groom were taking their wedding photos and I found myself shadowing the photographer for a few shots. My cousin Ben was working late so we ate with the kids and went home. I didn't see him until after ten.

The next morning I was up early to visit the nearby castle. We walked across the grounds and then toured the interior displays. A video explained the construction, and I had the feeling that I had seen some of the characters before, perhaps in Osaka-jo. Near the top, there were rooms reconstructed to represent various households throughout the country.

From the top, the views of the city couldn't compare with those of my cousin's apartment, but it was interesting to think of it as the observatory tower of the ancient city. Sitting on a corner of the moat, we could clearly see the plan of the former castle.

Back down on the ground, we walked towards the covered arcade of shops that run across downtown Hiroshima. At the far end of the moat we stopped to watch a man throw bunches of bread crusts to the ducks. It appeared that feeding the ducks was more a job than a past-time. Seeing my cousin's kids, he handed them a bunch to throw out to the ducks themselves.

We dropped of Jillian at a MacDonalds in the Hondori for a birthday party and then set out to find a lunch of our own. After finding a garlic restaurant not yet ready for business, we decided to eat at a sushi restaurant around the corner. Our set lunches were filling, the soup was light and delicious. Afterwards, Teresa took me to a nearby gelato place where we shared a gigantic serving, scooping up the ice cream as quickly as we could so as not to spill it on the floor of the establishment.

Teresa dropped Jillian and Justin off with a neighbor who took them bowling and we strolled along the hondori towards peace park. At the park, Teresa showed me the A-bomb dome, the hulk of a concrete building that had been near the epicenter and had managed to stand. Later, while circumnavigating the ruins, their stately grandeur reminded me oddly of Aanjar, a set of Umayyad dynasty ruins west of Beirut.

We wandered past the children's monument, inspired by leukemia victim Sadako. When she learned she had the disease at 10 years of age, she began folding paper cranes, for according to Japanese tradition, folding 1000 cranes is something one does as a wish. She died before completing her task, but afterwards, children from around Japan and then around the world took up her cause.Pastic cases flanking the statue contained thousands of paper cranes, and all are stored in a nearby repository.

The day had started slightly overcast, but by the afternoon, it was as clear as the morning of August 6th. The museum was a devastating reminder of the horrors of the atom bomb, and a constant plea for the removal of nuclear weapons from earth. In a cenotaph in the center of the park, a fire lit from a flame that has been burning for 1200 years from atop Mt. Misen burns. It will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon is destroyed.

As a museum, the Peace Memorial Museum stands along with the Tuol Seng museum in Phnom Penh as two of the most difficult museums to visit. Afterwards, we walked through the park. Teresa had told me how soothing it was to be in the park after the museum and she was right. She told me her kids didn't want to see it again after the first time, and I don't blame them. I told her that I wouldn't want to either. I was surprised she had toured it again with me. I told her that if I brought guests to the museum, I would remain outside waiting for them, walking the park grounds, remembering the displays but not confronted with them.
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