Category Archives: Budget travel

Flights and the Next Leg

I sat perched at the mezzanine-level bar in Starbucks which overlooked Omiya Station’s main concourse, nursing a coffee.   Last night Fred had asked, “Do you want to try some sake?” and when I had nodded he was clearly delighted to have a drinking companion.  My sister-in-law and her mother cannot drink alcohol—it causes an allergic reaction.

I had already ordered a beer.  I know I probably sound like an alcoholic.  I have come home from some trips undecided where I should check myself in first—to Hazelden or a fat farm.  But really, drinks are just props to my writing, like in the movies where people are constantly walking to the drinks cart, pouring drinks, and using the drinks in their hands as part of their stage gestures.

I have so many addicts in my family that I’ve always closely monitored myself for signs I am crossing over from social to compulsive drinker.

Fred and I split four glasses of a sake flight.  Each selection was from a different region.  The first one was amazing—fruity but, because sake, not sweet.  The others were okay and it was fun to taste the differences.

Charlie had been playing Pokémon Go on Fred’s phone from the moment we met at the station.  His parents impose an almost-total ban on screens, including TV, movies, video games, and internet.  This has caused a boomerang effect where he has become obsessed with all things electronic.  I was kind of grateful that I could tell him, in honesty, that my phone was on the wane so he couldn’t use it to watch YouTube videos or play games.

Occasionally Fred or Hiromi would ask Charlie a question and I loved that he responded unselfconsciously in Japanese. He had been working hard in Japanese school, in Minnesota, and here, in immersion.  He deserved some mindless Pokémon Go off leash time.

Fred and Hiromi and I talked about language learning.  Charlie would start French classes once school resumed, on top of Japanese school on Saturdays, and he would be switching from piano lessons to cello.  Part of me wished I had had these opportunities and part was relieved that my mother’s approach to parenting had been totally laissez faire.  We ran wild, with no geographic boundaries or curfews.  I wonder if this is why three out of the four of us are creative types.

I gave Hiromi the tofu souvenir from Koyasan and she seemed to like it.  I asked Fred if he liked tofu.  He nodded and gave me a short talk on all things tofu, which varies by region.  Maybe this is why Japanese people don’t get sick of tofu—it comes in so many different textures and is used in so many different ways.

That night I sat on the side of my bed trying to make sense of the next day’s itinerary.  I was so utterly exhausted from the days’ travels.  I started to cry because I couldn’t understand something about getting from Point B to Point C.  I set the itinerary aside and fell back on the bed.  Hopefully it would all be clear tomorrow, as it unfolded.

I finished the horrifying novel about WWII and fell asleep for about an hour, until my Restless Legs jerked me awake.  I got out of bed, ran in place for 10 minutes, then fell back to sleep.  That repeated six or seven times until my alarm went off.  In other words, a normal night.

So here I was at Starbucks watching bursts of humans emerge, converge, and then stream off to their respective exits as trains came and went.

Fully 90% of them wore black pants and white tops.  You could say this was Japanese conformity, but in London two years ago I had observed a similar “uniform” of blue suits with white shirts.  I spotted two American flag shirts.  Out of the thousands of travelers, there were about five black people, two Indians, a half dozen middle easterners, and two women wearing headscarves.  Zero anyone who appeared Latino.  There were three disabled people in wheelchairs.

And two elders.  I jumped up and ran down to meet Fred, Hiromi, and Charlie.

Uniqlo No

Somewhere, waiting for one of the seven trains that took me from Koyasan to Tokyo, I took these photos.  The “trauma” of potentially losing my phone receded the farther I got from the scene, and I started snapping away again.

Why would there be a zone designated “Boarding for women only,” you ask?  Because women are so often groped on trains in Japan that it’s necessary.  Yuk.  I was never groped, probably because I was an obvious tourist.

For some perverse reason I enjoyed taking photos of ugly scenery.  This was the winner.

It was a long, hot day.  I was sweaty and felt grimy and tired.  Something that kept me going was the prospect of shopping at the Uniqlo store in Omiya station, my final destination.  Google showed that there was one; I was thoroughly sick of the four outfits I’d worn over and over for three weeks and looked forward to buying some fresh threads.

Omiya is a part of Tokyo a half hour from the center.  Its population is about 114,000—bigger than many US cities.  Omiya station, like Tokyo and Ueno and other stations, is enormous and filled with hundreds of convenience stores, florists, bakeries, noodle shops, pachinko parlors, clothing boutiques, you name it.

As usual the diagram I had studied on Google bore no relation to reality.  A one-dimensional map cannot show you that there are three stories, skyways, and underground passages.  It didn’t show me that there was an entire mall within the station, and once I stepped inside I was disconnected from the station.  A map also cannot prepare you for the thousands upon thousands of commuters streaming in and out of the station at 5pm.  I felt like a salmon swimming upstream or like that old game Frogger, when I had to dash in a zig zag pattern to get through mobs of people to cross from one side to another.

I searched for a half hour, then concluded that Google had been wrong; there was no Uniqlo.  If there was one, it was not listed on the directory nor did it have an obvious storefront.

Next, I boldly stepped out into the main thoroughfare and headed in what I hoped was the correct direction to find my Air BnB.  I passed a number of “soapland” entities, which is a euphemism for whore houses.  No wonder the Air BnB was so cheap.

The directions had said the place was “5 minutes from Omiya Station,” and by golly, it was.  I spotted the building and at the same time saw a stout lady on the external stairs shouting, “Hello!  No lift!”  I was so glad I’d shipped my suitcase on to Shimoda as I climbed three flights of stairs to meet my hostess, who turned out to be Chinese.  She gave me a huge hug like I was her long-lost daughter and gave me a brisk tour using a combo of Chinglish and Google translate. I followed her as she demonstrated the lights, “Go Out, Off!” she emphasized three times before hugging me again.  I knew I stank so she must have really liked the looks of me.

As in other low-rent Air BnBs in which I have stayed, everything was the cheapest quality possible, including the pilled, polyester bedclothes.  But hey, it only cost $73 a night.

My new mom showed me the Air BnB app and told me, “I need 5 stars review, keep boss happy!” She guffawed and hugged me again, then disappeared.

Now, a shower!  I couldn’t figure out the hot water system and I wasn’t taking a cold shower in a communal bathroom.  I teared up in frustration.  A hot shower would have to wait until after my next Herculean day of travel—tomorrow.

My Japanese family lives in Omiya, which is why I was there.  My etiquette guide explained that foreigners are never invited into Japanese homes because people are ashamed of how small their digs are.  So I didn’t take it personally when Fred suggested, through Skype, that we meet at the station and eat at a nearby restaurant.

I freshened up as well as I could with cold water, then headed out into the night.

Losing My Serenity

Day 22 in Japan.  Today I would leave Koyasan for Tokyo, from whence my nine-year-old nephew Charlie and I would travel to Shimoda.  Charlie is the nom de plume he has chosen.  His real name is Japanese.

As I finished my last fabulous breakfast at the monastery, Mick and Mary, the Aussies, stopped by my dining room and asked, “How ya goin’?”

I began to blab out all the thoughts I’d had about the Japanese approach to war remembrance, in particular the memorial to some action in Malaysia which possibly involved a forced march of Australian troops but which was spun in the cemetery as a neutral action.

Mick and Mary weren’t interested.  “We’re just here for the food,” Mick said, somewhat jokingly.  They invited me to come and see their accommodations, and I accepted.  They had a separate little house, basically.  It was similar in style to my humble room but it had an en suite bathroom with its own soaking tub.  So you can live large in a monastery if you’ve got the dosh.

The first bus out of Koyasan left at 8:11.  I stuffed my suitcase into the dumbwaiter, then nearly slid down the steep stairs to meet it on the ground floor.  “Thank god I’ll never have to hike these treacherous stairs again,” I thought.  Then I realized I’d forgotten my coins in the room so I had to go up and down one more time for the road.

It was raining, a hard steady downpour.  I was the first person at the bus stop but soon was surrounded by tourists from Spain, France, the UK, North America, and Australia.  They bunched together to avoid the rain, with me at the center so that when the bus arrived I was the last to get on.

An American or Canadian woman asked me to not sit in the last empty seat because, she explained, “My husband has long legs and needs an extra seat.”

“That’s not my problem,” I said as I took the seat.  So much for mountaintop serenity.

As I mentioned in my last post, I had slept all night without any Restless Legs symptoms, something that only occurs about twice a year.  As the day progressed I noted the difference between energy from a good night’s sleep and nervous energy from adrenaline.  The first type ebbs away slowly, while the second drains like a sieve and makes you more tired than ever.  Today I would be so very grateful for the good energy that comes from sleep.

From the Koyasan bus station I took the cable car down the mountain, then the train onward.  In Osaka, I got off at the wrong station.  Five people gave me five different answers about what to do next.  I was confused, panicked, and tearful.

Then I stopped and thought—if I can get to Kyoto, I can get to Tokyo.  Just do the next indicated thing.

I got to Kyoto, where I finally used the fabulous bag shipping service that every guide book promotes.  It cost $17 to have my bag shipped to Shimoda, so I wouldn’t have to lug it to Tokyo and then to Shimoda, all while herding my nephew.  Fantastic.

I felt elation when I was finally on a Shinkansen for Tokyo.  An aged British man dressed in all black like a heavy metal rocker snored loudly in the seat across from me, while his much younger Asian wife entertained their children.  I wondered what she saw in him, with his pot belly and long, thin, grey hair framing a bald spot.  Maybe it was true love.

As we passed through Yokohama I thought about my dad, who had spent time here on shore leave while serving in the US Navy.  Did I have a half sibling here?  Probably I would find out eventually, if Ancestry.com becomes the rage in Japan that it is in the US.

In Tokyo I became confused again. I had traveled on a bus, a cable car, and six trains. I finally found my seventh and final train.  Google had mapped this trip at four hours but I arrived at Omiya station at 5pm—nine hours after leaving Koyasan.

Tofu Nirvana

Today was the day.  I had not touched my cell phone for 48 hours and now I could check to see if it was dead or alive.  It was alive!  The screen looked weird, like water had dripped down inside and smeared it, but it worked.  It would die eventually, once I was back home, but for the rest of my trip it worked.  Hurrah!

I felt grateful that it worked, and also grateful that I had been forced to not use it for 48 hours.  If your phone has to die, a mountaintop Buddhist monastery is the perfect place for that.

There were some new guests next door to me; from the guttural exclamations I could hear through the wall, they must have been German or Dutch.  They sounded aggressive, which I realized was just their language, but I took my laptop with me just in case they turned out to be thieves.  This is the type of irrational thinking I do when I am sleep deprived, which is just about every day.

I wanted to buy a gift for my Keiko’s parents.  Koyasan is considered sacred to the Japanese.  I didn’t know Fred and Hiromi were believers and if so, in what, but they had never been here and I thought it would be nice to bring them a little something.  But what?

At the information center, I asked the friendly staff of three for advice, but none of them spoke much English.  From the back office, a tall, stout man appeared and thrust out his hand.

“I’m Patrick O’Leary.  How can I help?”  An Irish American! He was the fourth employee.  After my initial surprise, I explained I wanted gift advice for my Japanese family.  He translated for the other employees and they conferred.

“I’ve lived here 30 years and I still don’t understand it completely—the gift giving thing,” he said.  The advice was to buy a special kind of dehydrated or freeze dried (is there a difference?) tofu made only in Koyasan.

Really?  Tofu?  Now, I like tofu, but I had never considered giving it as a gift.  I asked them to write down the exact name in Japanese since I assumed it would be difficult to find.  They giggled a little up their sleeves, and I realized why as I entered the first gift shop I came across to find thousands of boxes of gift-wrapped dehydrated tofu.

Here’s the good thing—dehydrated tofu is light, unlike the broth-packed yuba tofu I had bought in Nikko.  Once I saw it I realized this was something I’d been enjoying at every meal in Koyasan. Once it’s reconstituted, it has an even spongier texture than regular tofu.  Call me a weirdo, but I like that, so I bought a package for myself too.

I returned to the monastery and did some work, wrote a blog post, ate an instant ramen lunch, and packed for my departure the next morning.  Then I sauntered out for a last visit to the cemetery.

This time I followed some of the tantalizing trails that led off from the main paths.  They wound up, up, up from one terrace to another; on every level there were loads of old tombstones as well as signs that people still visited, like gardening tools and stools and obviously-recent offerings of coins or flowers or incense.

One path turned out to be a cross-country hiking trail. A very serious woman through hiker hoofed it my way, barely nodding at me.  The path opened out into a meadow, and I could see where it reentered a woods on the other side.  So tempting!  But I turned back.

I got lost and ended up in an area where Japanese tour buses arrived.  This was the location of newer graves, including “corporate graves” for people who dedicated their lives to their companies.  Probably they literally worked themselves to death.  I will never understand why this is considered admirable.

That afternoon I attended the fire ceremony, which as I wrote turned out to be a two-hour meditation.  That night I slept eight hours straight!  I guess all I have to do from now on is meditate two hours a day.  Right.

Truth and Lies and Consequences

I’ve been chronicling my month in Japan for months.  Part of me just wants to be done with it so I can move on to other topics, like living in the UK next year.

But after reading the article I referenced in my last post, about how many Japanese leaders spin the country’s involvement in WWII as passive or reactive or even as “Japan as victim,” I realize it took this much time of reflection and research to figure out what was going on and to know I wasn’t crazy.

It’s not like I expect to single handedly prevent WWIII, but if I can do even a tiny bit toward  encouraging people to be on the alert for and question nationalist narratives, well that’ll take as long as it takes.

Four years ago, I stood in a busy street in East Jerusalem with a Palestinian colleague.  He was giving me a walking tour during our time off.  I watched as flocks of school children streamed by and asked, “Do they learn about the Holocaust?”

“No,” he said bluntly.

So generations of Palestinian children are growing up thinking that Israelis—and Jews by extension—are occupying their land and coming down hard on them for no reason.  That’s a gross over simplification.  The Holocaust factored into the establishment of the State of Israel but it was only one factor.  Still.

Omar has a master’s in Conflict Studies from Coventry University in the UK.  So he got out of his local bubble for a few years.  While he is no fan of Israel, he has the background and context to critically analyze the very complicated situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which I am confident will soon become a nation state.

The Japan Times article describes the weird shrine I visited in Koyasan with all the military photos and paraphernalia.  I assumed it was the work of one eccentric.  But no, denial of Japanese fault during WWII is pervasive.

The shrine aims to influence Japanese visitors, in particular school children, with a narrative in which Japan is the heroic liberator of Burma and other countries.

“This version of Japanese wartime history is now shown to legions of Japanese schoolchildren visiting Mount Koya, proving Japan’s intent to liberate Asia. From [the shrine], school children proceed to the huge cemetery, where they receive a second introduction to the parallel universe. Here they encounter the “Hall for Heroic Spirits” fronted by a sign identifying more than 1,000 martyrs, better known to the ordinary world as convicted A-, B- and C-class war criminals.”

I really liked this paragraph:  “Why can’t Japan do what Germany did, i.e., admit it was wrong and that it did some horrible things, and make a sincere apology that isn’t almost immediately contradicted by other Japanese leaders?”

On Halloween I dressed up and went to an exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art about art and the Vietnam War. Or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it.  It included pieces by American and Vietnamese and Hmong artists …

… and one Japanese artist—Yoko Ono.  This was a performance piece where members of the audience were invited to come up and cut off her clothes.

Here’s me in my Halloween threads.

Yoko Ono survived the WWII fire bombing of Tokyo, in a bunker, when she was 12 years old.  Her father spent time in a prison camp.  She and her family almost starved after the war.

Back in Okunoin cemetery, I arrived at the shrine where I had cried over my aunt the night before.  It was open now, and the thousands of lanterns created an eerie feel like being inside a holy computer or nuclear reactor.  I’ve never dropped acid, but I imagine this place would give you a good feel for what it was like.

I slept 1.5 hours that night.  Thought flashes marched through my mind: the underground tunnel in the shrine, the military photos, images from Birdsong of men being crushed underground, the Japan self-defense forces becoming an unfettered military again, Australians sent on forced marches by the Japanese in the south Pacific, the shrine with thousands of lanterns ….

So much for monasteries being peaceful.

Tunnels and Rabbit Holes

There was a shrine with a prominent sign that said, “Free Entry.”  I am normally leery of offers like this.  One time Vince and I went to the free Museum of Woodcarving in the north woods of Wisconsin somewhere and it turned out to be a collection of bible scenes which in which the wood carver attempted to convert us to Christianity. We declined his offer to see “much more” in the basement.

I don’t set out to write posts with themes; it just happens, as you’ll see.

Was this “free shrine” really a shrine? The walls were packed floor to ceiling with military photos and there were museum-like displays with more of the same.  The structure was octagonal, and half way around there was a sign indicating an underground maze.  I’m usually game to try anything quirky but at the bottom of the steps I realized this was a pitch black maze.  Why would anyone want to grope their way along cement basement walls in a pseudo shrine?  Would there be a sudden drop into a fattening pen?

I quickly retreated.  The omnipresent shrine attendant followed me around until I exited.

I bought some wasabi peas and Calpis, a yogurty beverage I was growing fond of, then stopped in at the inn.  My room had been cleaned and there was a new snack which had little fish in it.  I don’t mean crackers shaped like fish, like Goldfish.  I mean real, dried whole fish.  They were tiny, so eating fish heads wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I can’t say they added anything to my enjoyment of the snack.

I piled up eight cushions to sit on and leaned against the wall to read for a bit.  I was struck by an article about the Japan self defense forces in the newspaper.  “Self-defense forces” may sound tame, but they are the “world’s fourth most-powerful military in conventional capabilities” and Japan has the world’s eighth-largest military budget, according to Credit Suisse.

While Shinzo Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party may have a cute logo …

… it has an objective of amending Article 9 of the Japanese constitution “to remove prohibitions on use of military power in resolving international disputes.”

I had been working my way through the novel Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  It’s a WWII love and war story and I now resumed reading a detailed account of the underground warfare conducted in Europe between the allies and Germans.  The Brits recruited miners to dig tunnels far underground.  The Germans did the same. They met somewhere in this real underground maze and fought hand-to-hand combat.  They were often in complete darkness for days and had to crawl to get through the low tunnels.  Sometimes the tunnels collapsed.  Sometimes men suffocated or were crushed or died in accidental explosions.

Why would anyone want to repeat the nightmares of WWII or any other war?

I had to set the book down a couple times and think about whether I would continue reading because it was so horrific.

After another amazing dinner, I returned to the cemetery.

There was a monument to one of the handful of woman buried in Okunoin.  She had also donated her hair, so I guess that’s a thing.  There was another magical rock; if you held your ear to it and listened closely you could hear “screams from hell.”  The woman’s screams?  If so, why—what had she done?

I hiked on and came to a memorial to “Japanese and Australians who were sent to east Borneo (Malaysia) during WWII.”  WTF?  I had seen several memorials in Australia to the Aussies who died on Japanese death marches in Borneo and elsewhere.  Was this another attempt to make a Japanese-perpetrated atrocity sound two-sided?

Just now, I researched what the weird shrine was, and falling down that rabbit hole led me to a Japan Times opinion article titled, “Mount Koya sites exemplify ‘parallel universe’ where war criminals are martyrs.” It describes how the shrine portrays Japan as liberating Burma and other countries.

But of course, as the old song by The Who goes, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”  The Japanese just became the new colonizers.

A Woman’s Place, a Woman’s Watch

A sign in the hall said, “Take valuables with you.” I would normally stash my laptop out of sight in my room but it was now my only means of communication so I stuffed it into my backpack.  It only weighed four pounds when I left for the day but it felt like it weighed 20 by the time I returned.

There is a bus that covers all of Koyasan, but I felt like walking. My destination was Nyonindo, the only surviving women’s monastery of seven that used to exist.  Since it was for women, naturally Nyonindo had to be outside the city walls.  Women were granted permission to enter Koyasan in 1872.

It was still early so the tourist buses and day trippers hadn’t arrived. Nyonindo was about a 20-minute walk from “my” monastery.  I left the shops and restaurants behind and there were only monastery walls on either side as I walked up the long roadway.  It was a beautiful morning, although already getting hot.  Massive cedars loomed over the walls, and jays called back and forth. Old men with straw brooms were sweeping pine needles into heaps.  They ignored me, which was fine.

For the first but not last time, I was glad I didn’t have a camera.  If I had, I would have been tempted to surreptitiously capture the old men with their rustic brooms.

Nyonindo was tiny.  I wouldn’t have even taken notice of it if I hadn’t been looking for it.  As usual, even in the smallest shrines, there was a guy sitting behind a counter ready to sell you a lucky charm.  He ignored me, which was great.  There was a water cooler and I gratefully partook,  then threw a coin in the donation box and walked out.

Now, supposedly there was a “nature path” that started near Nyonindo.  I wandered back and forth along the road looking for it, then used the toilet and discovered that it began behind the toilet.  Nice!  There were some dilapidated signs and maps on boards that didn’t help much, so I just plunged into the forest.  Surely I couldn’t get lost if I kept track of my turns.  But I didn’t go far, because the path was like climbing muddy stairs.  I could imagine myself slipping and tearing my ACL, and then where would I be?  Alone with no phone on a deserted path in the deep woods.

I used to love this kind of hike and am still tempted to follow the lure, sometimes.  I relish being alone in nature.  I get a little thrill out of the slight feeling of danger.  But about five years ago I slipped on a muddy path along the Mississippi and sprained my MCL.  There was nothing for it but to walk home—about a mile—which made it much worse.  I was on crutches for six weeks and couldn’t drive my car because I couldn’t engage the clutch.  So now I use common sense.

I walked back down the long hill to two tiny mausoleums built by the third Tokugawa shogun in 1643.  I paid Y200 ($2) and mounted the obligatory steep set of stone steps.  The mausoleums were ornate “on the inside,” I read, and visitors weren’t allowed inside.

The next logical attraction would have been the Daniyo Garan complex.  Built in the ninth century, it is the “second most important” area in Koyasan, after the cemetery.  I walked to it.  I walked around it.  I walked through the courtyard.  I went back outside.  I walked in again and looked around.  I just couldn’t get excited about another temple complex.  Besides, busloads of tourists were beginning to fill up the adjacent massive parking lot.

Maybe tomorrow.

I was bothered by not knowing what time it was, so I stepped into a clock shop smaller than my living room in which it appeared time had stopped.  The walls were covered with ticking clocks and the display cases full of watches.  It wasn’t dusty, but it felt dusty.  The proprietor suggested a mandala-themed watch, but I chose a $50 water resistant model.  He suggested I take the pink version, and I acquiesced.

So now I have a pink Japanese watch.