Category Archives: Joie de vivre

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.

In the Monastery

I waited on the platform for the train to Gokurakubashi, from whence I would take a cable car, and then a bus, to the monastery.  It was unclear to me, and still is, why I would take a cable car—not a train—directly to Koyasan station.

I had to hold myself back from jumping onto a waiting train. I must not have been the only one to feel this impulse, because a recorded announcement kept repeating in English, “Do Not board the train on platform x.  If you are going to Koyasan, there will be a later train.”

The monastery registration had stated that “visitors must arrive by 5:00 pm.”  It was only 3:00, so I wasn’t worried.  Who am I kidding?  My mind was busily generating worst-case scenarios.  But then the train came, and the scenery was vertiginous and spectacular, and I forgot to worry.

These signs were everywhere.  I’m not sure to what they referred.

I had imagined a rickety old gondola creaking and swaying up the mountain.  Instead I boarded a sleek, very expensive-looking car—as it should be, since it held dozens of people and their luggage.

In five minutes, it lifted us up a thousand feet. Or maybe it was 300.  I have no idea but it was steep and high. Whee!

The station at the top was decked out with glass globes and strips of paper fluttering in the breeze—maybe for the Tanabata festival?

Spiffy uniformed guides waited at the exit and efficiently pointed us to our respective buses.  Twenty minutes later I stepped into the monastery, where a man in black led me on a march around the facility.  In staccato English, he pointed—“Shoes, no!”—then point elsewhere—“Shoes okay!

“Meals seven in morning, six thirty evening.  You come down.  Women bath open, four to seven.  Gates close nine o’clock.  Meditation six a.m.  Yukata, no!”

This last part I would screw up the next morning.

He led me to my room which was up a steep flight of stairs.

The room was quiet and spacious and there was a view of the koi pond.  The man in black left me and I inspected the features.

There was a sink!  This small amenity would save trips down the hall to the shared bathroom area to fill the kettle, and I’d be able to wash my clothes, which by now were crunchy with dried sweat.

But why, why couldn’t pink champagne come out?

The internet was easy and fast, and there was a bean bun snack.  By now I was famished, and the snack fueled my hunger.  I rooted around in my suitcase, wondering if maybe I’d forgotten I had a pizza in there.  I came across a gift box of yuba, the specialty tofu I had been toting around since I left Nikko two weeks before.  It was heavy, so why not do myself a favor and just eat it now?  Turned out it was heavy because it was vacuum packed in broth.  I wolfed it down.

The best food is when you’re really hungry, which most of us aren’t, very often.

Several hours later the man in black served me dinner in a private room.  As someone who loves fruits and vegetables and beans and tofu, I was almost so enthralled I forgot to eat.  Except I didn’t, of course.

I tucked in to the 15 foods in 24 dishes.  The food was fab but I felt a bit isolated.  I had imagined a communal dining hall where I would meet interesting fellow travelers.  I could hear a pair of Aussies talking on the other side of this screen.

But never mind.  I had exploring to do.

In real time, I attended a training last night to volunteer as an election judge. I didn’t realize that part of it could involve “challenging” people who may not be eligible to vote, including felons.  I felt very sad, imagining anyone with a record caring enough to vote, then being questioned in front of dozens of his fellow citizens.

I hope I don’t have to do it, but if I do, maybe I am about the most empathetic person for the job.

Summer Summary

From time to time, I’ve taken a break from chronicling my travels in far-off destinations to write about small adventures close to home.  I can’t travel abroad 365 days a year, so I try to find new places and things to do in my own backyard.

This summer was no different.  The highlight, of course, we my son’s wedding. I’ve already shared my amateur photos from the day, but here’s one more, of me and my cousin and nieces lining up to show off our green eyes.  It was funny at the time.

This year, spring lost its luster because of my aunt’s illness.  Soon after her death, I walked around the little lake near my house, Beaver Lake, and did something I never do.  I sat down on a bench and actually looked at the lake, the tree branches loaded with buds, and the sky as spring clouds drifted across and changed the colors on the water.  I listened to the jays, robins, wood peckers, loons, and cardinals.  I didn’t have any great insights into the meaning of life or loss but I felt comforted to know that the wheel turns and the world wakes up every year.

I returned to the same spot a few more times as spring progressed into summer.

I met a friend for a walk at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  We never did walk.  We got a pitcher of beer and sat at a table for a couple hours, people watched, and talked politics.

On my last visit to my aunt’s house, I took a long walk along the St. Croix River.  It looked to be shaping up as a great year for mushrooms and fungi, with many rainy nights and steamy days.

Molly and I hung out on her deck and laughed at her cat playing secret agent in the tall grass.

Then there was Japan, and then I was back.  I visited my favorite paths along the Mississippi, starting at Hidden Falls Park.   I don’t know why this photo looks like my lens was smeared with Vaseline, or if coyotes are a new thing here, or how they know there is only one.

I spent a rainy afternoon and evening at Irish Fair, an annual event in St. Paul that always has great music.  This year was no exception; there were bagpipers in kilts, of course, but the headliners, the Screaming Orphans, got the crowd whipped into a frenzy.

I hosted a Japanese food-making party for Keiko, my nephews, and my brother.  Almost everything turned out oishi (delicious).

In late July I returned to the St. Croix and canoed with some people I knew from the fabulous mid-Century modern high rise apartment building I lived in for six years.

For once in my life it didn’t start raining as soon as I stepped into a canoe.  I was paired with a woman from Nebraska who had never canoed.  She didn’t follow instructions and had no upper body strength, but she was so nice that I didn’t mind that I basically paddled the canoe myself the whole way.

We stopped for a long picnic lunch on an island.  Afterwards, as if I hadn’t gotten enough of a workout, I did a two-hour hike through the Minnesota side of Interstate Park, which is a park that straddles the Minnesota and Wisconsin banks of the St. Croix River.

A friend and I rented kayaks and paddled around Pickerel Lake; this is not my photo, in case that’s not obvious.

I took some long bike rides, went berry foraging, and sat in my backyard and appreciated the hydrangeas that had been a highlight of Japan and were also profuse in St Paul this year.  I even tried my hand at flower arranging.

As ever, summer closes with two blockbuster events.  First, the Minnesota State Fair.  This is a small selection of seed art.  Winters are long on the prairie.

The poor horses.  Of course they bite and kick, cooped up like that.

Bulls on Parade: not just a song by Rage Against the Machine.

“Eggzibit”—get it?

Then, Labor Day weekend in Wisconsin, paid for by my aunt.  It helped to have a super cute super baby there.

To Sun or Not to Sun

I had worried about how long it would take to get to Kasairinkai Park on the train, but arrived an hour early.  As the train became crowded with day trippers, I could no longer see the station names outside the windows.  Good thing I had counted how many stops I needed to go and got off at the right one.

I scored some krill-flavored nuts at the station convenience store, caught their wireless signal, and sat munching on a bench outside while I Skyped with Keiko, who was en route with the family.

People walked, biked, and scooted by.  It was a hot, sunny day but no one was wearing shorts, sweat pants, tank tops, or flip flops as one would normally see at any western beach.  I saw no cleavage in the month I was in Japan—except on one young western tourist who made up for the whole month.  There were no tattoos.  Tattoos are something only gang members sport.  Anyone with a tattoo must cover it up in order to use a public hot springs bath.

Most people wore sun hats and long-sleeved cotton shirts.  Many women wore black fingerless gloves and carried umbrellas.  Later, Keiko explained that Japanese women are very, very concerned with getting age spots and other sun-damage. This seems sensible, and I’ve even read that Japanese skin does not age as well as other skin types, but I don’t know if that’s true.  You sure see a lot of products, like snail gel, marketed as the “Japanese secret to younger-looking skin.”

Anyway, I was wearing a tank top with a crocheted top over it.  My head and shoulders were bare. Most of my arms and hands were exposed to the sun.  I had on flip flops. I wondered if passers-by were giving me the side eye and thinking I was scantily dressed, but it was too late now.  I’m a sun lover, but of course I was slathered with sun screen to protect my visage and décolletage.

I had brought the gifts I bought in St. Paul, Minnesota-made soap for Keiko’s mom, Hiromi, good chocolate for Fred, and a Minnesota Twins vs. Tyrannosaurus Rex t-shirt for the boys’ cousin, Ichiro.

I couldn’t wait to unload them.  They only added about three pounds of weight to my bag but the longer you travel, the more three feels like ten.

I handed Ichiro’s gift to him while we were at the top of the giant ferris wheel.  He looked flustered, nodded a vague acknowledgement, and held it on his lap.  Had I committed a giant faux pas?

“Go ahead and unwrap it,” I encouraged.  My nephew, Charlie, made a grab for it.  “I’ll do it!” he exclaimed. Charlie would rip the thing open in two seconds.

“No, no, it’s for Ichiro, not you,” I interceded.

The boutique had wrapped it creatively, included tying pipe cleaners in intricate knots to close it all up.

Ichiro couldn’t make headway with the knots, so I nodded to Charlie.  He tore it open and held up the t-shirt to Ichiro, who said quietly, “Thank you.”  Did he hate it?  Had I embarrassed him?  I think he was just shy, especially around a western lady with holes in her shirt.

Next we had a snack.  Here I am eating octopus balls.  No, not their testicles—deep fried bits of octopus.  If I look a deranged, it’s because my nephews were next to me and we were hamming it up, but I’ve edited them out.

We strolled to the beach and the boys threw rocks in the water while we adults talked.  Needless to say there were no women in bikinis, and hardly anyone wearing a swim suit.  I had mine on under my clothes but wouldn’t have dreamed of stripping down.

“Let’s have an early dinner at the hotel here,” Fred suggested.  “They have very good Chinese food.”  The dumplings were very good; I also had tempura and cold soba.

I gave Fred and Hiromi their gifts and they seemed to like them.  It had been a nice day, capped off by an auspicious siting of Fuji in the sunset, to the bottom left of the ferris wheel.

Brits in Japan

On the Lake Chuzenji area map I saw there was a former British embassy and a former Italian embassy on the opposite side of the lake.  I had already hiked for an hour and climbed 212 steps.  It looked like the embassies were about a half hour hike.  Should I go?

Of course!

So I did, and I was glad.  This was the view from the other side of the lake.

There was a sign about the 29-kilometer (18-mile) hike you could take around the lake.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Once in a while I daydream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or the Superior Hiking Trail.  Then I remember that my scoliosis makes sleeping on the ground a bad idea.  If there were inns along the route I would consider it—someday.

The former British embassy is now a memorial park.  I paid the trivial entry fee and wandered through.  There was a tearoom offering formal British-style teas but I had had my fill of ramen.

This was the former ambassador’s office.  Not a bad view.

There was a photo display about Ernest Satow, a British diplomat who represented England in Japan at the end of the Edo Period and start of the Meiji Period.  He “went out to Japan,” as the British say, when he was still a teenager.  Edited from Wikipedia:

Satow is better known in Japan than in Britain or the other countries in which he served. He was an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveler, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist, and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts.

He also served in China, Siam, Uruguay and Morocco, and represented Britain at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. In his retirement he wrote A Guide to Diplomatic Practice, now known as ‘Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice’ – which is widely used today.

Satow was never able, as a diplomat serving in Japan, to marry his Japanese common-law wife, Takeda Kane. They had an unnamed daughter who was born and died in infancy, and two sons, Eitaro and Hisayoshi. Eitaro was diagnosed with TB in 1900, and was advised to go and live in the United States, where he died before his father. His second son, Takeda, became a noted botanist, founder of the Japan Natural History Society and president of the Japan Alpine Club.

What a full and fulfilling life, with quite a burden of sadness, too.

There was this little tribute to QEII and Japanese-British relations.

It made me wonder.  I hadn’t seen any glossy mags with princesses on the covers or heard about scandals by members of the Japanese royal family.  Were they just very low profile and non-scandalous, or did the media not report on them?

I had had enough walking and passed on a visit to the Italian embassy memorial park.  Besides, it was getting late.  I hopped a bus back to the Lake Chuzenji bus station, then caught the bus back into Nikko.  The road down the mountain was one way.  I have taken some vertiginous rides through mountains—in Jamaica, Ethiopia, Belize, Arizona—but this was the scariest ever.

I fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on my window, and slept through the night with only a few RLS twitches.  Maybe that’s the cure—hike for hours and climb hundreds of steps every day in clean mountain air!

The next day I headed back to Tokyo.  On the train, I again meditated on how most visitors “do” Nikko in one day as I gazed out at the rice paddies.

It was an easy return trip; the local train was beautiful, with wood paneling and classic Japanese paintings adorning the luggage racks.

I bought a to-go bento box in Utsonimiya.  It was beautifully wrapped but not good food.  Still, I ate it as I watched the usual assortment of train officials walk up and down the aisles wearing their caps and white gloves and badges, bowing to us passengers at the end of each car before walking through to the next.

At Ueno Station, all I had to do now was follow the easy directions printed off from my next hotel’s website.

Chuzenjiko

The next morning I sat down to another breakfast of Texas toast, fruit, and soft-boiled egg.  But then the hostess approached me and said gingerly, “This is not your breakfast.  You did not pay for it.”

“Oops!” I said.  “I thought I pre-paid for all three mornings?” But I had not, and with some relief (because I don’t really like soft-boiled eggs or Texas toast) I got up from the untouched meal which was meant for another guest and happily ate a Cup-o-Noodles before leaving on my day trip.

Lake Chuzenji is about a half hour from Nikko via steep winding mountain roads.  The bus stop was easy to find, and the bus fare system was brilliant.  I haven’t seen anything like it elsewhere. You take a ticket with a number on it when you board.  Then, a screen at the front tells you how much you’ll owe when you alight, refreshing at each stop.  Some guides had made it sound like it would be possible to walk to the lake, but that would have taken a couple hours, all uphill, with almost no space between passing vehicles and a sheer drop on one side or cliffs on the other.  The ride cost about $10.

At the station, signs pointed to Kegon Waterfall, so I dutifully walked over to have a look.

I searched for a way to get to the lake, but there were no signs except these:

Thankfully I never saw any attack monkeys.

I walked this way for 10 minutes, then that way, then another.  I finally returned to the station and consulted a map.  The lake was in the fourth direction I hadn’t yet tried, and it was an easy five minute, downhill stroll.  This is the lake.  It is spectacular.

“This reminds me of Wolfgangsee,” I thought.  Lake Wolfgang is in the Austrian Alps, where I had visited two years earlier. There was even Lupin about; probably the climate and soil in the two places are similar.

I guess it is human nature to compare things to other things, but I tried to put thoughts of comparison out of my mind and enjoy where I was right then.

Lake Chuzenji is a resort area, deserted on the day I was there.  Number one travel tip: research when the school holidays are in your destination country, and avoid those times.  Unless you like heaving crowds, long lines, and paying double for everything. This was the empty shelter where crowds would queue for boat rides during the high season.

The duck boats were very picturesque.

I was hungry and wanted to buy trout on a stick but the vendor had no change for my 5000 yen note.  I settled for a hot potato croquette filled with yuba, which was super tasty.

I walked along the edge of the lake for half an hour and “discovered” a Shinto shrine which turned out to be one of three called Futarasan in the Nikko area.  There were piles of little clay plates which visitors had smashed in a ravine. There was nothing about it in English. I didn’t smash any so I may have missed my big chance at …something.

It was 212 steps to the shrine.

I spent a quiet half hour with this guy and his deer (?) at the top.  I don’t know who he was.

This was the simple shrine nearby.

I sat on a bench; there were no other visitors.  Butterflies fluttered by and birds whistled up a storm.  I found myself resisting urges to “do” something—eat a snack, write some notes, keep climbing.  After 20 minutes I walked back down, where I noticed this lovely lion.

Here’s the view back toward the mountain where the shrine sat.

This was parked in the lot.  I would love to rent one.

I was hungry again—can’t imagine why—so I was happy to spy restaurant curtains through the glass doors of a little mall.

The place had Japanese and western style tables.

It was just me and a group of Japanese ladies who lunch.  This was my view.

I had a big bowl of ramen and a beer.  What a beautiful day, and it wasn’t over yet.

Sights and Rites

It had been a full day in Nikko.  After wolfing down a late lunch of ramen I walked back toward the inn and just noticed little sights that aren’t in any tourist guide.

Was this a public art installation, or just a manhole access point?

In addition to the public gardens all over Japan, there were many individuals who kept stunning gardens I caught glimpses of them here and there.

Even front doorways were miniature botanical compositions.

These were growing wild. If I tried to grow them on purpose I bet they wouldn’t take.

There were tiny shrines, too.  This one was dedicated to local laborers, I think.

I followed a sign into the woods and found a memorial dedicated to electrical plant workers.  It was too dark in the woods to take a photo, and it was not very exciting.

I didn’t know whether to think this sign, “Buddist Only,” (sic) was rude or within their rights.  How would they know if someone wasn’t buddhist, anyway?  Some tourist must have done something really obnoxious for them to have posted this.

There were signs around Nikko about a Frenchwoman who had disappeared in the area some months ago.  I learned later that she had epilepsy.  I wondered if she had wandered into some of the dark deserted places I’d been, and had a seizure.  I was glad I hadn’t stumbled upon her body at the memorial to electrical plant workers.

I had dinner in a Chinese restaurant that had come highly recommended by the hostess at the Turtle Inn.  Japan is like anywhere else.  It has its native foods and then a zillion restaurants featuring other nations’ fare that is enjoyed by the natives.  The Japanese seem to like Chinese, Korean, Italian, and French food.  In fact according to my sister-in-law, many Japanese like to fly over to Korea for weekends to eat “tasty Korean food.”

I have only tried Korean food a few times, and I was not a fan.  Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like every time I order Chinese, it consists of gristly meat sprinkled with a few anemic vegetables and smothered in a gooey sauce.  A lot of people are obsessed with Chinese dumplings.  I also just don’t think they’re very exciting. And they usually contain pork, which I don’t eat.

I walked to where the restaurant was supposed to be, and noticed—not for the first time—how hard it was to tell know if a building was a restaurant.  The place appeared shut.  There were curtains over the door, which I had seen in Japanese restaurants in the US. This photo is from the web.

 

 

It was impossible to see what was behind them without crouching down on my knees or creepily staring through them, so I walked in and—it was indeed a restaurant.  I ordered a chicken dish which seemed to contain every part of the chicken except meat—raw skin, yellow fat, white tendons, maybe a sphincter—all ground up together.  Maybe this was a delicacy to some people.  I picked at it, then smiled and bowed and paid and left.  I had not come to Japan to eat Chinese food, so next time I would not feel obligated to follow the recommendation.

Back at the inn, I spent some hours catching up on work and personal business and sat in the onsen twice.  My Restless Legs was now off the charts; maybe soaking in hot water would help?  Nope.  It was as if the RLS demons had caught up with me and were tormenting me for trying to flee.

But hey, I can sleep when I’m dead.  I wasn’t going to let stupefying exhaustion stop me from getting out there.

The next morning I would go to Lake Chuzenji by bus—a trip within a trip within a trip.

My son got married on Sunday!  There was a stunning venue, perfect weather, and a beautiful couple.  The officiant had his power invested in him by Ho Chunk Casino. There was a memorial to Vince’s friend who died a few weeks ago.  I walked Vince down the aisle then said quietly, “That could have been you.”

“I know,” he replied.