Category Archives: Travel

Villa-fied

In contrast to the ornate shogun tombs, the Imperial Villa in Nikko was Spartan.  I removed my shoes at the entrance, donned the slippers provided, and paid the Y510 admission fee—about $4.75.

This was the emperor’s office.  There weren’t a lot of visitors, and there wasn’t a lot of oohing and ahhing going on around me.

There was a video at the beginning.  I got the idea after five minutes but I couldn’t skip the rest of it because an elderly lady kept looking over at me with a smile as if to say, “You, foreigner!  Isn’t this impressive?”  I smiled and made sure I got well ahead of them once we started walking through.

There were some lovely embellishments, like this window built to frame a 300-year-old weeping cherry tree.  In America we would have chopped down the tree to make way for construction.

A few painted panels were all the art there was.

I went to make a pit stop and stopped short.  Bathroom slippers. Keiko had mentioned these.  There was no one around.  Should I just say “screw it,” and walk in with my regular slippers?  I decided to behave as I would if people were around, out of respect.

There was a clearly-defined path through the building marked with ropes.  Was I going to have to look at all 106 rooms, most of which were empty and contained no art?  I was relieved when after about 30 rooms I reached the exit.

The villa was used mostly by the current emperor’s grandfather, if I’ve got it right. If you have nothing better to do sometime, watch the old US military propaganda film, “Know Your Enemy: Japan.”  It’s on Netflix.  I watched it before I left and if even half of it is true, the Japanese were every bit as vicious as the Germans in WWII.

Like the Germans, they believed they were a master race, and even had a blueprint to take over the world, akin to Mein Kampf, called The Tanaka Plan.

According to this film—which is obviously biased—the Japanese believe their emperor is a God—literally.  If they died in the service to the emperor, they would go straight to heaven—thus the ferociousness of their fighting and willingness to commit suicide via kamikaze attacks.

Here’s what I don’t get.  If the emperor really was a God, why couldn’t he have stayed in Tokyo? Surely, God could survive bombing attacks, and protect his people from them, too.  Why did he come to Nikko and hide out in this villa, complete with bomb shelters in the woods?

The woods and gardens were lovely.  Here’s that 300-year-old tree, propped up with giant wooden poles.

There was a pond and a moss-covered path.

It was still only noon.  I returned to the Turtle Inn and had a cup of cheapo instant noodles they had available for guests to purchase, and Skyped with Keiko about our plans.

Then I headed back out to visit the main shrine, Toshogu.  This time I entered where the tour buses did, hoping it might be a bit less climbing.  It was not.  I don’t know what this sign said but it was cute.

The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, united Japan and ushered in 260 years of peace.  I’m sure that peace was won at the point of a sword, but that was not mentioned.  This was one of about 25 buildings in the complex.

This detail depicts monkeys supporting one of their friends who is feeling discouraged.

I had rented an audio guide which informed me that giraffes are featured on this torii (gate) because they are considered spiritual animals. I like giraffes, and I couldn’t see any and wondered how 17th Century Japanese would know about them.

Climbing the hundreds of stairs, I passed people bent over, gasping and clutching their chests.  Go to places like this while your knees and heart are good.

The tomb at the top had so many golden gewgaws the Trumps would have loved it.  The guide said to note the “hundreds of painted tapirs which are symbolic of peace.”  There were no tapirs, but hundreds of dragons.

What had they mistakenly translated into giraffe?

Wandering Nikko

I had paid for breakfast at the Turtle Inn and it was my only disappointment with the place.  It consisted of fruit, a soft-boiled egg, and several pieces of Texas toast.  I don’t think of myself as a fussy eater but I don’t like runny eggs.  I ate the fruit and toast then had the last protein bar I’d brought along.

The sign for the Abyss was close by the inn.  I followed it, and more signs, along the river. The morning was clear and cool and there was dew on the grass.  I was greeted by this welcoming committee.

And this warning sign about bears.  I know bears from Minnesota.  You throw them some potato chips, then run like hell.  But I didn’t have any potato chips so my only hope was to not cross paths with any bears today.

There were more jizos along the way.

I had seen these little red-capped statues in Tokyo, where the signage explained they were in memory of children who had died.  A sign here said much the same.  It also told of a great flood that swept through the gorge in 1902.  Ah ha! The “abyss” was a gorge.  How disappointing.  I was expecting something so deep and dark that when you dropped a rock into it you never heard it hit the bottom.

Anyway, many of the jizos were swept away in the flood, but visitors have since noticed that the number of jizos changes every time they count them.  “Therefore they are called bakejizo, or phantom jizos.”  So there was something spooky here after all.

As for the Kanman Gorge itself, there was more signage which explained that many visitors have dreams of the deity Fudo Myoo, the greatest of the five wisdom kings of Buddhism.  “He protects ascetics by cutting away worldly desires with a flaming sword.”  I liked that image.  I think I may need a flaming sword intervention to separate myself from my duplex full of old furniture and knick knacks.

I kept walking, passing more jizos and stone lanterns.

The path kept going through wild woods along the river.  I passed an occasional fisherman. The jizos turned into abandoned storage sheds and weirs guarded by rusty wire fences. I saw a large deer a few yards off the path.  She stared at me and twitched her tail, then bounded off.  I love this kind of walk—when you have no idea where you’ll end up and you can imagine it’s slightly dangerous but it’s not.

I emerged on the edge of town, where a sign pointed to a botanical garden—another place tourists never visit.

I pondered over this sign.  Subsequently I showed this photo to my sister-in-law, who puzzled over it for some minutes before explaining that it warns of sudden floods and landslides.  So even if you could read Japanese, you’d be swept away before you could suss out the sign.

The botanical garden cost about $2 and I could have spent all day there.  The paths wound round and round; I kept getting lost and coming back to this same enormous tangle of tree and vine.

From the giant to the tiny—I stumbled into a field of forget-me-nots.

I sat for a few minutes, watching dragon flies hovering in the sunshine.

The sound of rushing water was ever present from the numerous streams that crisscrossed the gardens.

I stooped down and marveled at a tiny vine and its springiness.

I never do this at home.  I stride quickly to whatever is my next destination, eyes front and center.

This sign caught my eye; several of the letters look like Hebrew.  Funny, I guess there are only so many shapes humans can imagine for our alphabets.

I exited the garden; it was only 10am.  My next stop was the 106-room imperial villa, a summer residence for emperors until Hirohito hid out there during WWII.  What a contrast to Queen Elizabeth II and her family.  They had a northern estate where they could have safely waited out the German bombings.  But they stayed in London, where Elizabeth trained as military mechanic and truck driver.

This was my intro to the mindset of the Japanese toward WWII.

Squats and Spritzes and Blow Dryers

Since I brought up the subject of toilets in the last post I may as well get that topic out of the way.  I’ve written in the past about the Dutch toilets with viewing platforms that magnify smell.  The cavernous English thrones that amplify sound.  The Ethiopian squat toilets and Turkish bidets and broken Cuban toilets that require a human to dump a bucket of water down after you’ve used one.  The silent Australian toilet rooms.

But no one beats the Japanese for toilets.  Here’s the control panel of a typical one.  Yes, I said “control panel.”

I am not one to linger on the toilet. I do my business and get on my way.  But I found myself fiddling around with buttons in Japan, just to see what would happen.

I have to say, I enjoyed the toilet seat warming function, although it was a bit alarming the first few times when I wasn’t expecting it.  Why don’t we have this in Minnesota, where toilet seats really are cold in the winter?

Note how the bidet and butt spray buttons are color-coded blue and pink.  And the figure sitting on a fountain of water inside the pink button has long hair, just in case some man doesn’t understand that a bidet is for females.  Hey, isn’t that sexist?

I just noticed there’s a “Stand By” button.  What the … shouldn’t it be “Sit By”?

This sleek silver control panel renamed the “bidet” and butt-spray buttons “front” and “rear.”  Not exactly accurate or, wait a minute!  Have I been doing it all wrong?

There were toilets with so many options you could spend all day trying to decide.

If I could read braille, maybe I would have known what this panel offered.

This toilet, which was on a train, had a dryer option.  The thought of hurtling along at 80 mph while having my bum blow dried did not appeal.

This toilet room reminded me of an operating room.  Scary.

I only used western-style toilets.  The traditional Japanese squats didn’t have any of the features above.  I know because I accidentally opened the wrong doors a few times.  I caught a vibe that the Japanese feel their toilets are superior to western-style toilets, so all the washing and whooshing isn’t needed.  Who knows, they may be right.

For those who had never used a western-style toilet, there were directions.  I like how the little figures on the right are clenching their fists, apparently toiling. Ha ha.

There were pleas to please be clean.  Thing was, there are no rubbish bins anywhere in public places in Japan, except occasionally in bathrooms.  Apparently this is part of everyone being responsible for his or her own trash.  You don’t make anyone else clean up after you—including emptying rubbish bins.  You carry a plastic bag with you everywhere, and save up your ice cream wrappers and used hand wipes and train tickets to dispose of when you get home.  There was no litter, anywhere. Also no graffiti, for that matter.

My favorite head shaker was the model that included a little fountain or faucet on the back of the toilet.  Was it a drinking fountain?  No.  This was for hand-washing.

I suppose the all-in-one toilet/sink was considered a convenience but psychologically I had to work to get over the idea of rinsing my hands on the back of a toilet.

Speaking of sinks, the public restrooms had sinks but no soap or towels or any way to dry one’s hands.  So you rinsed your hands with cold water, then shook them all over the place or rubbed them on your clothes.  That hardly seems sanitary.

I liked the name of this air freshening device.

There was always toilet paper, and to my relief it was not thin as I’d experienced in Australia.

This alarming configuration was in a restaurant.

This stack of TP was in the botanical garden in Nikko.  Really, Japan?  You have to feature cute little animals on TP?  I guess we do it too, in the US.

I didn’t spend all my time in bathrooms taking photos.

In Nikko, I spent my second day taking in the non-famous sites, including the mysterious Abyss.

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.

My Name is Anne, and I’m Anxious

I need to write an honest post about anxiety.

I could tell myself it’s not logical to be anxious.  I should be grateful, even.

I don’t have to commute or work full time. I haven’t touched my savings since quitting my full-time job in December.  I’m healthy enough that I feel safe forgoing health insurance—which would cost me over $800 a month for a lousy plan—and instead use a healthcare sharing program, which costs $220 a month.  I enjoy my contract work with my former employer, working on million dollar proposals to the UN and US government.  I enjoy my very-part-time job at the YMCA minding little kids.  It’s summer, and I’ve got free time to go berry foraging or biking the wild paths along the Mississippi.  I live in a charming and affordable duplex.

Vince, who less than three years ago emerged from prison with nothing, owns a home, is a dad, and is getting married in 10 days.

Yeah, I know I have it good.

Then why do I get ice-cold stabbing pangs of fear in my solar plexus?  It’s not every day, or all day, but it can last for hours and it’s extremely unpleasant.

I think it is thanks to my nemeses, the what ifs.

My financial future is uncertain.  What if my contract isn’t renewed next year?  Should I get another full-time job?  What if no one wants to hire a 59 year old?  I recently read that the average job hunt for someone my age is 12 months. Maybe I should have started looking months ago!

Could I try to live off my savings?  It’s not my regular monthly expenses that are a problem; they’re very modest.  There are always things like new tires ($$), a new phone ($$), and a crown on my molar ($$$$). What if my engine gasket blows, or I need two crowns next month?

I have a plane ticket to Panama for December but haven’t booked accommodations.  What if Panama turns out to be super expensive?

Those are the semi-rational what ifs.

If I allow it free reign, my mind conjures up additional scary possibilities that are unlikely to ever happen.

I saw a sign warning of coyotes at the river today.  What if I was attacked by one on my walk and couldn’t work?  I would lose everything and end up one of those homeless people on the freeway exit holding a sign that says, “Sick.  Can’t work.  Anything helps.  God Bless.”

I swore at another driver on my way home from the river as we both fought our way through a traffic jam. What if I lost it, rammed someone with my car, and ended up in prison?  How humiliating would that be?

Images of these things happening actually flash through my mind.  Usually I am barely aware of them, and I can laugh them off.  But they probably contribute to the anxiety

And those are just the neurotic thoughts about me and mine.  I despair that my country can put a man on the moon, find a cure for Hepatitis C, and produce all sorts of genius inventors and entertainers and artists but we cannot come up with a single solution to gun violence.  One of my neighbors was killed in a mass shooting in 2012.  Will I, or someone I care about, be next?

Then there’s climate change.  Contrary to what millennials seem to believe, not all of us baby boomers have been callously disregarding the environment all our lives.  My first environmental protest was in 1974.  We were calling on the government to clean up the Mississippi River.  And it got done.  But as I sit in my car writing this—at the river, on the latest of a series of unusually hot days—I fear we are all doomed.

When I travel I do feel nervous about finding train stations and such. But mostly I am in the moment every moment and my anxiety is fleeting and mild.

I’m went to the Mississippi today to hike uneven terrain, to throw myself off kilter so I would have to focus on each step or I’d pitch headlong into the dark, swift current.

There I go again!

Cabbin’ It

I felt a bit guilty casting aspersions at Chinese tourists in my last post.  I’ve discussed the phenomenon with half a dozen world traveler friends, and they all hold the same opinion, that Chinese tourists are rude, and—the worst sin of all—they are forever ruining other people’s views in their quest to get the perfect selfie, often with the hateful selfie sticks.

I had this experience in Rome, at the Colosseum.  I was standing at a viewpoint, marveling at the history of the place, when a young Chinese woman stepped in front of me and began preening and pouting for selfies.  She seemed completely unaware that she had ruined my moment and was blocking my view.

Maybe that’s what made it so annoying—it was clear that to her, I didn’t even exist or at best was a detail to be worked around.

“But of course,” I said to a friend the other night at happy hour, “she may not have been Chinese.  She could have been Korean, or American. I never heard her talk.”

“I know,” my friend agreed.  “But there are so many Chinese out there!  So the odds are she was Chinese.  They’re always in huge groups with a Chinese guide, and they barge in front of everyone.”

“I know, I know.  I’ve seen that many times. I was almost knocked into the street in Eton when lived there two summers ago. The Chinese tour groups came along the sidewalk like juggernauts.  It felt like they would have trampled me like a bug if I hadn’t moved out of their way.

“Their guides had a horrible attitude.  But I’d like to think there are polite Chinese tourists, immersing themselves in local culture, speaking a little Italian, but we just don’t notice them because … they’re not doing anything obnoxious.”

“Right.  I hope you’re right,” my friend replied doubtfully.  “Well, we Americans were the bad tourists for a long time, and still are. And the Japanese used to be notorious for taking photos of everything but not stopping to learn anything about what their subjects were.”

“I encountered a lot of horrid, loud-mouthed Spaniards in Germany.”

“And the Brits, especially in Spain, are super loud and trashy!”

We agreed, the Chinese get a bad rap for good reasons but also just because there are so many of them.

Travel used to be reserved for the rich. Thanks to the discount airlines and cruise ships, anyone can invade a beauty place with their braying and bad behavior.

I was on the shinakansen to Utsonimiya.

Oot-sone-oh-mee-yah.  I loved the sound of it so repeated it in my head too many times and now it’s an earworm.

The shinkansen was clean and quiet.  The seat was so capacious I could keep my suitcase in front of my knees.  The ride was smooth enough that the water bottle I set on top of my bag never trembled.

From Utsonimiya I would take a regular train to Nikko.  Then, I had mapped out how to walk from the train station to my lodgings.  There were buses, too, but they wouldn’t go all the way to the Turtle Hatori Annex, and I was nervous about getting on a bus with my bag, figuring out how to pay, getting off at the right place, and walking from there.

I needn’t have worried about any of it.  The moment I arrived in Nikko the skies opened up and the only option was to take a taxi. What a relief!  I didn’t care how much it cost; I had to admit that I just didn’t want to walk or take a bus.

The taxi driver wore white gloves and his seats were covered in white lace.

The inn was twice as far and a much more convoluted route than my guide book or Google maps had led me to believe.  I would have arrived exhausted it I’d walked.

The taxi cost about $9—no tipping expected—well worth it.

I had made my first successful transition from one city to another, the first of nine in the month to come.  After being oriented by the chatty hostess of the inn, I strode out to explore Nikko in the rain.

All Aboard!

I enjoyed my last good breakfast for a while, monitored the messages about my mom, then checked out of the Mielparque Hotel and rolled my peach-colored suitcase toward the station.

I had figured out that, when searching for a station, I should watch for gusts of salary men in black suits streaming forth at regular intervals and walk in the opposite direction.

Today I was taking a bullet train, or shinkansen, to Nikko.  Japan just “revealed” the new Supreme model, which goes 186 miles per hour.  I don’t know how fast the one I rode on went, but fast enough that the scenery was a blur.

First I had to figure out the queuing system for boarding.  You can reserve seats on the shinakansen but I hadn’t bothered to do that, having been assured by the JR Rail people that this train wouldn’t be crowded, it not being tourist season.  The cars were numbered, but how would I know which cars were unreserved? Along the platform about every 10 feet, there were lanes painted on the pavement to indicate where you should line up to board.  They were numbered.  What did the numbers mean?  “1” sounded like it would board first, so I got into a lane marked 1.

The shinakansen arrived, sleek as a space shuttle.

As it slowed to a stop I saw that some cars were marked “unreserved,” and I gave up my space at the head of the line to rush down the track.  I didn’t know how long the train stopped at this station—I had seen some trains spend only 30 seconds at the platform before departing.

I was first in the queue for the unreserved car, when a young woman with a giant bag stepped in front of me.  Had she not seen me?  Was there something about the system I didn’t understand?  So far, I had found the Japanese to be polite and devoted to order in the extreme.

“Excuse me,” I said, “There’s a queue.”  She appeared not to have heard me as she watched down the platform for her boyfriend, who hurried up to join her.  When they spoke I realized they were Chinese.

This would be a theme on the trip, and something I hear about from anyone who has traveled anywhere—that the Chinese do not recognize any system of queuing.  It’s survival of the fittest.  This explained the women I’d seen walking past long lines at women’s toilets, right to the head of the line.  No one had said anything.  I had wondered if there were subtle social cues I just didn’t understand which made it okay for some people to bypass the wait and go ahead of everyone who was patiently waiting, including old ladies and pregnant women.  But now I knew—they were just Chinese.

I can be a nonconformist in many things, but when it comes to lines I’m a law-and-order person.  So I spoke up again, more forcefully.

Excuse me, there’s a queue—a line,” I said forcefully as I jabbed my finger at the eight people who were now lined up behind me.   This time she couldn’t ignore me.  She and her boyfriend didn’t look at me but they moved immediately behind me.  So they were still barging in, but none of the people behind us, most of whom were probably Japanese, had the temerity to say anything.

I’m sure they were all—Chinese, Japanese—thinking, “Americans are so pushy!”  But I was there first, and I was going to get a good seat.  I hoped a few of the Japanese were silently cheering me on.

The doors opened silently and a cleaning crew stepped out and lined up in front of us. They must have boarded another car and worked their way down to ours, at shinkansen speed.  They were dressed in impeccable pink uniforms and had feathers in their caps.  I found these photos of other such crews from a news article.

The crew leader shouted something and they all bowed and smiled at us, then gestured for us to board.

The queue dissolved and a mad scramble ensued as everyone ran for a seat.

Ten seconds later we were off.