Category Archives: Joie de vivre

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.

Shoguns and Squats

I’ve already written a bit about Nikko, how I arrived there on my fourth day in Japan and it was there that the anxiety that had trailed me from the US ebbed away.  As I wrote in my last post I am feeling a lot of anxiety of late, but I know it comes … and goes.  I’ve never had a full-blown panic attack and ended up in the ER like some people I know.  I get out and do things despite feeling anxious about them.  Ninety-nine percent of the time everything turns out okay.

And sometimes, like in Nikko, physical exertion, attraction distraction, and serenity of a place help the anxiety disappear.

Nikko’s claim to fame is that it hosts tombs of the early shoguns.  The shoguns were hereditary military commanders who ruled Japan for nearly 700 years, until Emperor Meiji was given real powers during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  “Shogun” is Japanese shorthand for “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians.”

Now here I came, a barbarian wandering among their tombs.

The structures are unique because they are Japanese interpretations of Chinese shrines.  This means that, unlike the simple, spare style seen elsewhere in Japan, the shrines in Nikko are over-the-top ornate.

Guidebooks and online advisories will say you can “do” Nikko in a day. Maybe that’s technically true—if you arrived by tour bus and had a guide barking, “hurry, hurry, on to the next shrine!”

But why would you want to hurry?  Nikko is so much more than the shrines, as I discovered.  I spent three nights there and could have easily spent a fourth.  Or the rest of my life.  Nikko is in the mountains and the soothing sound of water coursing along little streams and springs is ever present.

I found the pedestrian entrance to the shrine complex, which encompasses half a dozen shrines, each of which encompasses a dozen structures. Every shrine charges an admission fee of $2 to $12.

I climbed and climbed the irregular stone steps, in the rain, to the main square, then wandered around trying to decide which shrine to visit first.  I could just catch glimpses of golden rooftops.

I decided on the mausoleum of Iemitsu, grandson of the first shogun, Ieyasu. The shoguns often have a birth name, a warrior name, and military titles that makes keeping them straight challenging.  So I didn’t try.

I figured I should use the toilet before entering, where I encountered my first Japanese-style toilet.  No, not the ones with lots of electronic features, but a squat.

Pivot: Iemitsu designed his own mausoleum to be “subtle” so as not to outshine his grandpa’s.  This is just the hand washing station at the entrance.

Ladle up some water, wash your left hand, then your right, then have a drink out of your cupped palm.

I remember this as “the quiet shrine.”  It is set in ancient woods and the only sound was birds calling back and forth.  I was one of only three people there that day.

Near the handwashing station there was a jumble of mountain scenery, with two stone statues that I only noticed because I stopped to contemplate the forest.

More steps, and through an ornate gate with fabulous protectors on either side, borrowed from Hinduism.

This structure was basically a storage unit for giant bells and drums used during special events.

There were a thousand stone lanterns, all “donated” by feudal lords to the shogun. I liked the moss and fern hat on this one.

I stopped at each landing to look out over the tree tops and listen to the birds.  At last I arrived at the top and the inner shrine, where photos were not allowed.  There wasn’t really anything to do there, so I slowly walked back down.

I guess most of the lanterns can be lighted, and I would see this later in my trip.

From somewhere, I heard the music from the Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies wafting through the forest.  What it signified, I had no idea, but I chose to take it as my dinner bell.

There—just writing this remembrance has brought me a sense of calm.

Runny, Slimy Things

The Mielparque Hotel had a breakfast buffet with Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and western-style foods.

Alongside various forms of tofu, pickled vegetables, and fish, there were runny scrambled eggs, British favourites like fried tomatoes and baked beans; and spaghetti—something I saw on breakfast buffets in Australia.

I loaded up and felt like I was in heaven.  This was my first Japanese meal and looking back, it’s pretty sad compared with many that followed.

One of the joys of Japanese eating is that a meal may include 12 small dishes, all served in beautiful porcelain or lacquered wood bowls or plates, on a wooden tray.  So the serving ware above is not typical.

But the squash soup was to die for.  So rich!  I never tasted its equivalent again.

Miso was served with every meal I had all month.  Rice was standard unless it was a noodle meal. Pickled plums (lower right) are sweet, sour, and salty all at once and absolutely sensational. Smoked salmon was central to breakfast. One standard breakfast thing not shown above was the sheets of nori (dried seaweed) in a plastic wrapper.  Several times in the days to come, waiters would point it out on my breakfast tray and explain that I should unwrap it and soak it in soy sauce before eating it with rice.  You can imagine how many tourists must have tried to eat the wrapper, or dry.  Kind of like people trying to eat the corn husks in which tamales come wrapped.

Another item not shown above is the aduki, or adzuki, beans.  On the buffet, they came in a little paper cup with a cellophane lid.  I was intrigued.  At my table, I peeled back the lid to reveal strings of slime.  I tried a few, gagged, and set them to one side.

The Mielparque was one of only two places I stayed that made coffee available.  Typically, only green tea was provided in accommodations.  I would be grateful I had brought a small jar of instant coffee and a box of creamer cups in my suitcase.

Most meals in Japan start with the cleaning of one’s hands at the table.  This might be as lovely as being handed a warmed, jasmine-scented white wash cloth artfully rolled up and presented on a small tray, but usually it involved a wet wipe in a plastic wrap.

I had used the wipe and it had been whisked away by a waiter.  My nose started to run.  It unhelpfully does this when I eat something spicy.  I searched for a paper napkin but there were none.  Could I get away with rubbing my nose with the back of my hand?  I was the only westerner in the dining room and I had chosen a seat facing the center of the room so I could people watch.  This meant they all faced me. Would my fellow diners be disgusted if I wiped?

Over and over, I had read that Japanese expected westerners to get their etiquette wrong.

I wiped, trying to act nonchalant.  No one looked in my direction, but somehow I felt they all saw what I did and condemned all Americans for being nose wipers.  But hey—there were toothpicks on the table.  Was it acceptable to pick my teeth—if not my nose—at the table?

The dining room was silent except for a small boy playing with his Anpanman action toy.  This was my introduction to how quiet Japan is.  No one in the dining room—or anywhere, ever—was blabbing loudly on his phone.  I never heard a text alert tone or cell phone ring. I never heard a jack hammer, although there must have been construction going on.  I only heard one power tool in the many gardens I visited, and the user switched it off as soon as he saw me coming.  I heard only a handful of sirens or cars honking.

This all goes to the Japanese value of harmony of the group, which Lynn and I would learn more about when we took a cooking class in Kyoto from a guy who had lived in the US.

I forgot to ask him about nose wiping.

I’m Here

Here I am—yoo-hoo—over here!  Way over here, in Japan.

The 11.5 hour flight was uneventful. I watched five movies, ate three meals, and slept for five minutes.  Every once in a while I glanced back between the seats at my five-year-old nephew, and he was only sleeping once.  The rest of the time, he was hunched up like little kids do when they’re jazzed, his black eyes twinkling with excitement. He and his brother are now attending kindergarten and fourth grade, respectively, in local Japanese schools for two weeks.

I had brought my full-size smushy pillow, and it made all the difference in comfort to be able to lean against the window with some padding.

I had a bit of a rocky start in Tokyo.  My cell phone wouldn’t charge, then died.   I walked in circles for almost an hour trying to find my hotel.  The “tower view” I’d paid extra for was a view of a brick wall, and no one at the front desk spoke enough English for it to be worth my while trying to explain it.  When I logged into my credit card account there were a slew of charges from a company I’d never heard of.

Thank god I’d brought my laptop!  How else would I have been able to find an Apple Store in Tokyo?  The folks at the front desk knew only enough English to point at a map handout (all in Japanese except the name of the hotel), to show me how to get to a local train station.

All is well now.  My experience at the Apple Store was delightful.  My Restless Legs disappeared completely for three nights!  I can only guess that my brain thought nighttime here was daytime due to the 14-hour time difference, and I never get RLS during the day.  It’s back now, bad as ever.

I spent two full days in Tokyo, then moved on to Nikko, a small city in the north.  The advertised reason to come here is to visit the shrines dedicated to the first shogun, Tokugawa, and others.  They are amazing, but the delight for me here has been nature and food.

This was my first meal here; a bento box featuring yuba, a local specialty that is soy rolled out paper thin then rolled up into pinwheels.

Here is a photo from a walk I took yesterday along the Tamozawa River.

You could look at this and say, “Hey, this looks just like the Knife River on the North Shore near Duluth!  Why go thousands of miles away when you can drive two hours and see similar scenery?”

And you would be right, to a point.  I love the North Shore and fully intend to go there this summer, too.  But it doesn’t have red painted sacred wood bridges that are hundreds of years old, or stone bodhisattvas wearing red knitted caps and bibs.

It was on this walk—on my fourth day after arriving—that I felt myself come down off the ledge of worry about my phone, my credit card, finding stations and getting on the right trains….  This is often the way when I travel.

After my two-hour walk I hit the main shrine, which involved another half hour hike up a very steep incline followed by 200 steps where I passed people literally bent over double and clutching their chests.

At the top, in the Temple of the Crying Dragon, I was basically accused of shoplifting a lucky talisman.  Thankfully I was too tired to come out swinging, which would be my usual response.  But I left in a huff wishing bad karma on a Buddhist.  More on that later.

I consoled myself with a bowl of yuba ramen.

I returned to my inn and soaked in the onsen, or hot spring bath, which is 10 steps from my room.  Yes, you do it naked.

As I sat on the edge of the pool and gazed out the window I saw there was a stone Buddha in the bushes.  I could just make out his big fat belly … wait—I was looking at my own reflection!

Dang, guess I better watch it with the giant ramen bowls.

Circles

In one month I’ll be in Japan.  My plans are progressing.  I have been assured that my  investment of over $550 in a Japan Rail Pass will more than pay for itself.  I’ve booked accommodations in five locations and have two more to go.  I’ve downloaded apps like a free wifi finder, a Tokyo subway route finder, an offline map of Tokyo that turns out to be only in Japanese, and Google Translate.  I will test this last one out with my sister in law before using it on the street, just to make sure it doesn’t translate, “Where is the sub-way?” as “Where is the worst route?” or some such.

My aunt’s funeral took place last week.

The young priest at the small-town parish had alienated himself from the townspeople and congregants by firing the choir directors because they were openly gay.

Why couldn’t they stay closeted, like him and his “assistant,” Lance?

One day a month ago, my aunt had said to me and my cousin, “I hope you don’t think it’s weird, but I still want to be buried out of the Catholic Church.”  We assured her it wasn’t weird.  She’d been raised in the Catholic milieu of Small St. Paul in the 1930s and 40s.  She attended Catholic schools through high school and worked at a Catholic college.  There was, and still is, plenty of good work being carried out by nuns and Catholic lay people.

But she didn’t want the young priest saying her funeral mass, so my cousins imported a more liberal-minded visiting priest from St. Paul.  Other than calling her by the wrong name, he did a fine job.

You would think that a funeral would be the saddest part of a death, but this was a Catholic funeral, so it was all about Jesus and not my aunt.  Lance played the organ and belted out the hymns like he was in a broadway musical, so at least the music was good.

It’s the little reminders that catch you off guard.  Like seeing her knitting lying abandoned—the baby hat she’ll never finish. She knit baby hats for the local hospital.  I teared up when I came across her glasses, which she wore to read or work on crosswords, two of my own favorite pastimes.

While my aunt was dying—in pain or during moments of indignity she would have hated if she’d been conscious—someone asked, “What’s the point of all this!?” and I thought, “There is no point.  It’s biology, physiology, pathology at work.  It’s “nature, red in tooth and claw.”

And in my mind I start going around in circles like I always do, asking, “What’s the point of life?”

Some people seem to believe that the point is to be productive.  “I’m so busy!” is their refrain, as though that’s something to be proud of.  Others believe the point is to change the world for the better.  But I’ve seen so many well-intentioned do-gooders make things worse.  Is the point to live in the moment and be appreciate whatever is good and beautiful?  That seems a vapid, not productive….  Like I said, circles.

There are infinite details to figure out for the trip.  I need to get my duplex ready for the Chinese couple who are renting it while I’m away. And figure out how will I meet up with my sister in law’s parents to retrieve my nephew when the time comes.  And how do I buy tickets for a baseball game?  My nephew would love that. Must remember to register with the State Department.  Would it be worth going to Yokohama, where my dad was a sailor with the US Navy before I was born?  Should I get travel insurance?  What kind of gift should I bring for the in laws?  Japanese gift giving is fraught with peril.

And what is the deal with the baths?  Are they for health?  To get clean?  To socialize?  To relax?  There are so many types, and so many rules.  This CNN video clip about Japanese baths features Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who quips, “Having to say a prayer before you do something?  Makes me a little nervous.”