Category Archives: Travel

Great Shakes n Buddha

The Okumura Commemorative Museum is sponsored by the Okumura Company, which makes earthquake protection systems for buildings.  This was the first of half a dozen tiny specialty museums we visited in Nara, which were one of the reasons I loved the city.

After being strapped into the simulator, the man below held up the card to the right and explained that I was about to experience the great such-and-such earthquake of 18–.  The chair shook violently sideways, slowed, shook again, etc.  He pointed to another location on the map and told me which one I would sample next.  This went on, with Lynn standing by giving me a devilish look.  She has done earthquakes—in particular aftershocks in the wake of the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia, where she worked for Oxfam.

The simulator was fun, like a carnival ride.  We were all laughing.  But you could imagine, if you were in your home when the jolts started and your ceiling was collapsing, it wouldn’t be fun at all.

Next our guide demonstrated how Okumura systems protect high-rise buildings.  The building on the left swayed back and forth precipitously when he pushed the “Earthquake” button, while the one on the right barely moved.  My very imperfect understanding is that builders employ something like ball bearings at the base of new construction.  When an earthquake hits, these buildings roll with the movement instead of resisting it—like the old analogy of a willow and an oak in a storm—one bends and survives, one is rigid and topples over.

Nara is famous for deer.  On our first foray from the hotel, we passed a reservoir and I pointed to the water’s edge.  “Look! A deer!  I wonder if we’ll see any more—I’d better take a picture.”

As our vista opened up onto the main park we could see gangs of deer everywhere, like Canadian Geese in a Minnesota park.

Vendors sold what looked like large Catholic communion wafers for tourists to feed to the deer.  The deer were aggressive; jostling each other, lunging at the wafers, and giving an occasional nip to any tourist who didn’t fork over a wafer fast enough.

Time for the main event—Todaiji Temple.  “It’s the largest wooden building in the world,” Lynn read from her guide book.  Yes, she often carries guidebooks in her capacious handbag.  Selfishly, this is convenient for me; she lugs the weight around and is a handy reference.

Todaiji from a distance appeared to be computer generated, it was so immense.

We had been walking for almost an hour in the heat so we rested on a bench in the shade before tackling the interior, which was heaving with school groups.

“The great Buddha is 15 metres high,” Lynn read.  I tried to do the math in my head but just now Googled it.  That’s almost 50 feet high.

“Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.”

“Charming,” I remarked as we hoisted ourselves onwards.  Near the entrance, Lynn snapped me ringing the bell.

A witch-like Bodhisattva glowered nearby.

Inside, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and memory sat to the left of the Great Buddha.  This may have explained all the school groups.

The kids seemed to be having more fun goofing around than praying for success in their exams.

Here they are posing before the Bodhisattva who presides over the six realms of rebirth.

This solicitation of funds to rebuild Notre Dame was touching.

These looked like murals but were statues guarding the Great Buddha.

We slogged back to the hotel, telling ourselves we would go out later for dinner.  On our respective beds, I interrupted whatever Lynn was doing on her phone to read from the “Etiquette Guide to Japan” I had purchased in Kyoto.

“Why didn’t I buy this a month ago?” I asked myself. “Even the mildest criticism, if not followed by apologies, could cause a Japanese person to commit suicide.

“I hope I haven’t left a trail of death in my wake!”

Wobbling, Walking, Slaking, and Shaking

We took the hotel shuttle to Nara Station; well—the Japan Rail station—there is also a Kintetsu Rail Nara Station.  I was nervously psyching myself up to buy tickets to Shimoda for my nine-year-old nephew and me.

“Provide only information that’s necessary,” Lynn advised.  “Don’t raise red flags by saying he’s not your child.”

I was ready with Google Translate but the JR agent used a tiny blue device to facilitate our conversation.  It looked like it was decades old, so the Japanese must have been way ahead of Google on real-time conversation translators, although this provided text, not voice.

The transaction seemed to go smoothly, but there was no way of really knowing if I had what I needed until I met up with my sister-in-law’s parents the following week and they could read the tickets.

Next, breakfast at Le Bon Vie in the station.  I picked out a melon bun because I liked the sound of “melon bun.”  It contained no melon; it was a green bun filled with golden custard.  Pretty oishi anyway.  Lynn had something cheesy.  We munched and sipped our coffees accompanied by The Beegees “Stayin’ Alive” blaring on the Muzak.  Or is it all Pandora or Spotify now?

“Oh my god!” Lynn sputtered as she spotted something in front of the JR ticket window.  I followed her stare and nearly spit out my bun.  A young woman, a westerner, was buying tickets and trying to get organized.  She was very tall, maybe six feet, and barely dressed.  She wore a sleeveless, low-cut jumper with shorts so short her buttocks hung out as she bent over to arrange something in her backpack.  This view competed with that of her pendulous white breasts hanging down, bra-less, up top.

“I don’t know where to look!” I exclaimed.  “There’s cleavage coming and going!”

“Avert your eyes!” Lynn advised.  “And we wonder why more conservative cultures think western women are slappers.”

“I hope she’s not American—or Canadian so people will assume she’s American.”

“She’s so tall and blonde.  Let’s assume she’s Swedish.”

We took the shuttle to the other Nara Station, which was closer to the temple complex we wanted to visit that morning, Kohfukuji. There were four or five buildings; all charged 500 yen, or about $5.  I settled for exterior photos of the “famous” five-story and octagon pagodas.

I appreciated this sign.

The compound was peaceful and the inner shrine was beautiful.  In the tiny shop, I noted the usual selection of book covers, notebooks, and plastic paper sheaths.  I wondered how long it would take the Shrine Gift Shop Buyers Association to realize no one buys these items anymore.  Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe plastic paper sheaths are big in Japan.

Lynn had picked out some postcards.  She opened her bulging coin purse to show the all her small change.  “Can you help me use this?”

The girl good-naturedly counted out about a hundred coins.  Lynn thanked her profusely.

Across the road was the Nara National Museum.  It looked close, but the first building we reached was closed for remodeling.  And the next.  We walked around a third building looking for an entrance, to no avail, then followed signs to an underground passage that finally led to the entrance.

There was a fantastic exhibit of Buddha statues; no photos allowed.  In the gift shop I passed on the souvenir wash clothes—another common gift shop item I wondered about—and bought Vince a notebook.  The lines were vertical instead of horizontal and I thought he’d get a kick out of that.

It was lunch time, so we stepped into the first place that was open for some soba.

They had a soju promotion going.  Since it was about a hundred degrees outside the firewater was refreshing but may have been a bad idea because I then proceeded to pick up a guy who was half Buddha and half deer.

Steps away was an earthquake museum.  Here’s the simulator before I was strapped into it, where my Soju was shaken, not stirred.

Lynn recorded my ignominious tour of Japan’s Greatest Quakes.  Thankfully I don’t think she knows how to post video to social media.

needs and NEEDS

In real time, last weekend I spoke at a synagogue about my son’s incarceration and its aftermath.  There were about 20 people in attendance and I was nervous.  I rarely speak in front of groups, and this was a sensitive subject.  But it went fine.  Unfortunately, I know my stuff when it comes to being a prison mom, and authenticity carried the day.

They specifically wanted to know about challenges of re-entry into society. I described them in detail: housing (few landlords wants to rent to an ex con), employment (ditto, although some employers are known for be open minded), social support (many ex-offenders have been written off by family and friends), mental health and sobriety (it’s hard to stay on a healthy path when your housing is precarious and you can’t afford food, etc), medical and dental care (thank you, University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, for discount care!) and finances (prisoners net about 25 cents an hour in their jobs; Vince had amassed $300 after working full time for a year).

Supervision makes all of the above more difficult. A revolving door of agents can shop up at the ex-offender’s job or house anytime, day or night, and demand a urine sample.  Vince lived with me, and I had to have a landline installed because the Department of Corrections is not operating in the 21st Century yet.

The agents strictly enforce rules one day and let things slide the next; the capriciousness of the system is enough to drive anyone mad.

“What about voting rights?” someone asked.  It is thought that most ex-offenders would vote Democratic if allowed to vote.

“To be honest, that’s the least of their concerns, for sure when they are first released,” I replied.

Think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  Ex-offenders are struggling at the bottom.

A few days later I was at a friend’s house.  She and a neighbor agreed they want a Democratic presidential candidate who will bring about drastic—not incremental—change. Free college education.  Reparations for slavery.  Medicare for all.  Green New Deal.

I think about my coworkers at the YMCA.  They’re a racially diverse group of mostly blue collar young people who will probably vote Democratic—if they vote.

In nine months since I’ve worked there, none of them has ever talked about climate change, institutional racism, voting rights, or gender-neutral bathrooms.

Their concerns are: Where can I get the best deal on snow tires?  Should I make tacos or spaghetti for dinner tonight?  Should I color my hair red or get highlights or keep it black?

My coworkers aren’t at the very basic level of needs, but I worry.  If the Dems choose a candidate that Trump can paint as “extreme,” I don’t think ex-prisoners or my coworkers will vote at all.

It’s not that they’re incapable of understanding higher-level issues.  It’s that they have more basic needs demanding their attention and they’re not going to get fired up about a candidate who lectures from a flip chart about emissions trading.

In Nara, I deployed my secret weapon, a stash of five pills leftover from one of my Restless Legs Syndrome prescriptions.  I slept well for the first time in 16 nights and was giddy with energy when I awoke.  Lynn was still asleep so I hung out in the huge bathroom and made coffee with this …

… while I talked to Vince on Facebook.

“I think it must have taken five mechanical engineers to design this,” I said as I demonstrated it to my son.

Vince laughed at the thing.  “Bring me one, will you?” he requested, “so I can show it to my coworkers in the kitchen?”

“Will do,” I replied.  The connection failed so I took selfies of myself in the Nara Hotel yukata.  I never take selfies, so you know I was feeling good.

“Why don’t you just take medication every night?” Lynn asked later.  Fair question.

“Because it works, and then it stops working, and then I need to take more and more, and then it starts to actually make the symptoms worse, and then I have to go through an excruciating withdrawal process,” I explained.

“But for today, I feel human again!”

Nosing Around Naramachi

Waiting to get into our room, Lynn and I decided to have a snack in the Nara Hotel lounge.  The room hadn’t been updated in decades; it was dreary and the carpet was stained and worn.

The menu was geared to westerners.  We ordered a very expensive platter of sandwiches which comprised of crustless, doughy white bread smeared with the thinnest layer of cucumbers and tomatoes and cut into triangles.  The mixed nuts were reliably salty and filling and the black tea was served with real cream.

“I can’t see us eating here every night if these prices are indicative of the food joints,” I said. Throughout the hotel, we’d seen a cafe, a restaurant, a bar, this lounge, and other eating and drinking establishments.

“But if you noticed from the taxi on the way in,” Lynn replied, “There’s nothing nearby. We’ll have to figure out where the nearest restaurants are.  If we have to take taxis to get to them, we may as well eat here.”

A young woman escorted us to our room.  “Down two levels, in the basement,” she pantomimed as she pulled a trolley with our cases down several long hallways.

“There are windows?” I asked, alarmed.

“Oh yes!” she replied, laughing as she pressed the elevator button.  “It will take time,” she said, and walked away.  As we waited, we tried to decode a sign promoting beers on a rooftop terrace.

“Forty thousand yen?” I said in disbelief.  “That’s about forty bucks … for a beer?  I’m sure the view is very nice, but ….”

Our girl guide returned.  The “modern” wing of the hotel was very 80s style, in teal, grey, and mauve. There were more long hallways. I noticed vending machines selling beer for 2,500 yen—$2.50.

The room was geared to feel familiar to the western visitor, complete with a fake fireplace with plastic logs.

“It’s very spacious,” Lynn commented.

“Yes, and clean.”  A sliding glass door lead out to a cement patio without furniture. “This will be a good place to hang washing.”

I had read an article about Nara in Conde Nast Traveler which mentioned the Nara Hotel. You could walk down a set of stone steps (of course!) to the “atmospheric” Naramachi neighborhood of tiny streets and houses.

“It sounded really easy in the article,” I told Lynn as we reached the bottom of the steps.

“Don’t believe it!” she replied.

We did find it, despite ourselves, and I can’t say it was as I’d expected.  It was a typical urban neighborhood with streets, narrow alleys, and houses and shops.  Kind of like west St. Paul.

Why does the same place strike one person as “unforgettably atmospheric” and another as ho hum?

We accidentally found a temple, the Gangoji.  It had a beautiful inner shrine and nice collection of Buddha statues in an air-conditioned building.  No photos were allowed.

The courtyard was strewn with lotuses.  Would they stay in pots all summer?  There wasn’t a body of water nearby that I could see.

“You know how Taro had us use lotus root in our stir fry?” I reminded Lynn.  “I wonder if you can just go out in a kayak and pull them up?  We’ve got millions of ‘em in Minnesota.”

“Oh I should think not,” she replied.  “Wild ones are probably full of parasites.”

Not oishi.  As it turns out, harvesting wild lotuses in Minnesota is not allowed; I don’t know it it’s because of parasites or something else.

The only other photo I took at Gangoji was of a workman setting up a dicey-looking ladder.  I mean really—a three-legged ladder?

We walked back out into Naramachi and I may have startled Lynn when I expressed a great deal of excitement over a little housewares shop.  Inside, it was about the size of my bedroom and packed to the rafters with pots, straw brooms, plastic tub sets, and clothes-drying contraptions, most of it covered in dust.  An ancient woman sat behind a smeared glass counter; she didn’t move and her expression never changed.  Was she dead?  I found an omelet pan for about $5 but the mood for buying one had passed.

On to Nara

Nara was the capitol of Japan before Kyoto, which was the capitol before Tokyo.

Over a tasty Japanese breakfast at Shijo Station, we discussed whether to make a detour to the iconic shrine, Fushimi Inari-taisha. It’s in all the guides.  It really is iconic.

But it would not be empty.  “I hate to say it, but I’m inclined to save it for next time,” I said.  “I’m kind of shrined out.”

“Shrined out” was a term I’d seen frequently in reference to Japan.  Now I was living it.

There comes a point where you just cannot appreciate one more dragon fountain or anything that is the Largest, Oldest, or contains The Most gates, bodhisattvas, or peony carvings.

“But I’ve been here a week longer than you, and I’ve been to Nikko, where I saw I-don’t-know-how-many shrines.”

Lynn was fine with skipping it. She’s spent a lot of time working in Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and China. She’s been to Bhutan and India, many times. She knows from shrines.

“I don’t remember things anyway,” she reminded me.  I think she does, but I know what she means. The brain can only store so many memories.

Nara is ninety minutes from Kyoto by local train.  The seats faced in, for maximum people watching.  A tough-looking young woman sat across from me.  I guessed she was American, and when we made eye contact I asked where she was from.  “Pittsburgh,” she grunted, then stared at her screen for the rest of the journey.

A Japanese man with boils the size of ping-pong balls covering his arms boarded and sat diagonally from me.  Despite the sweltering heat he was wearing a scarf to cover his neck and half his face.  More boils, I thought.  What a terrible condition, whatever it was.  He fell asleep.

A Japanese girl of around 17 boarded, sat next to the man with the boils, and recoiled almost imperceptibly when she glanced down at his arm next to hers.  Would she get up and move somewhere else?  No.  She sat ramrod stiff and stared straight ahead.  She was wearing a sailor outfit with a skirt so short I had to avert my eyes.

“Did you see that guy with the giant boils?” I asked Lynn when we got off in Nara.  “And the girl with the cutesy sailor’s outfit, and that tough broad across from us?  She was from Pittsburgh.”

“No,” Lynn replied.  Did she think I was making up these characters?  “I must have dozed off.”  I envy her ability to sleep anywhere.

A friendly man at Nara Station Information Desk told us we could catch a free shuttle to Nara Hotel.  I had booked the room and they hadn’t sent any information about this.  We stood where he pointed although there was no sign.  After 20 minutes we gave up and hailed a cab.

At the hotel we were handed a shuttle schedule; it ran every half hour.  I suggested that they send this information to guests ahead of time.  It could have saved us ten bucks.  The desk clerk smiled and nodded but clearly nothing was going to change.

The Nara Hotel is a grand old dame celebrating her 100th anniversary this year.

After two weeks in cramped, basic rooms, I had thought it would be nice to splash out.  The photo montage on their webpage was extraordinary.  They’d hosted many famous guests—there was even a photo of Albert Einstein playing the piano in their lounge.

“The old part of hotel is closed for earthquake proofing,” the clerk said.  “We put you in modern wing.”

Rats. I hoped it wasn’t too sterile or modern.  We couldn’t get into the room for a couple hours so we had a nose around the lobby.  There was a timeline of famous visitors.  Charlie Chaplan!  Helen Keller.  Richard Nixon, the Dalai Lama, Marlon Brando, Joe DiMaggio (his wife Marilyn Monroe cancelled; things must not have been going well).  Multple visits by Japanese, British, and European royals.

Then there was this.

“1941: The Pacific War Broke Out.”

I really, really wanted to peel off that strip of paper and see if it said, “Japanese starts Pacific War by attacking Pearl Harbor” underneath.

Comfort Food

“Where should we go for breakfast?” I asked Lynn the next morning.

“Dean and Deluca?”

“We’ve gone there twice.  How about we try that authentic-looking place across from it?”

“All right,” Lynn said doubtfully.  “As long as you don’t make me eat horse sashimi or deep-fried chicken tendons.”

“Or chicken chops.”

We snickered. How bad could it be?

“I wouldn’t call it bad, I’d call it interesting,” Lynn said. There had been no photos on the menu so we’d guessed our best based on the English translations.  Our plates contained Texas toast topped with a thick layer of mashed potatoes, then Sriracha sauce, and crowned with about a pound of shredded iceberg lettuce.

“But it’s authentic,” I insisted.  We were the only westerners in the place.

And here I will sound like a whiney tourist, but it was really hard to get milk for my coffee.  Where you could find it, the coffee in Japan was extremely strong.  If I asked, I received one tiny plastic tub of “cream” which contained about a half teaspoon of white syrup.  If I asked for more they would bring me one more, to total about a teaspoon.

Wah wah. At least the coffee was strong, not weak.  It’s just a tea country, not a coffee country.

“Let’s go to Dean and Deluca tomorrow,” I capitulated.

Today we were visiting the famous Golden Pavilion, Rokuon-ji.

“Or is it Kinkaku-ji?” I wondered, looking at the map.

“We’ll find out … or we won’t,” Lynn answered as we walked toward Kyoto’s main station to catch bus 205.

“Didn’t we take the 205 to the cooking class?” I asked.

“Yes, it must be a different 205.”

We chanced upon a temple complex and walked in, as long as we were there.  This turned out to be Higashi Hongen-ji, which neither of us had seen on a map or guide.

It was impressive, with a beautiful dragon at the hand-washing station and ornate detail on every door and pillar.

“… established in 1602 by shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu when he split the Shin sect in two …” Lynn read.

“There’s a hair rope!” I interrupted.  “When the shrine ran out of rope the monks made one out of their hair.”

“I think I can live without seeing that,” Lynn responded.

I just googled the hair rope.  Call me biased but it can’t rival the world’s largest twine ball in Darwin, Minnesota.

The shrine had a nice gift shop where I bought an exquisite fan for my future daughter in law.

The shrine had inspirational messages on its outer walls.

We stood and pondered what “Now, life is living you,” meant.

“It’s either really deep, or makes no sense at all,” I said.

“I’m afraid I’m not deep enough to understand it,” Lynn said, and we walked on.

Half an hour later, we stood admiring the Golden Pavilion.

It really is layered in gold.  It’s surrounded by a lake and gardens, so you can get photos that don’t show the thousands of tourists.

I felt claustrophobic in the crowd so I stepped aside and contemplated this moss-covered gateway.

You can’t go inside or get close to the temple, so we were back on the bus in 20 minutes.

Lynn studied her map.

“We’ve still got the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine to see,” she pointed out.  “It’s in the other direction, also about 20 minutes out.  We could see it on the way to Nara tomorrow.”

“That’s the one with all the red gates?” I asked.

“They’re iconic gates,” Lynn replied.

Kyoto Station is part of a massive mall.  Of most importance, it’s air conditioned.  We nosed around Isetan, another department store.  We were interested in buying an omelet pan so we could make the Japanese-style omelets we had practiced with Taro, but they were asking $50 for one here.

On the 11th floor there was a restaurant advertising a sushi set meal for $55 for two, including a glass of saki.  Aside from a salty custard and green jellied cubes, the sushi felt familiar.

“Isn’t it interesting,” I pondered, “how sushi, of all things, has become the iconic Japanese food in the west.”

“Yes,” said Lynn, “It’s almost like comfort food.”

Shrine, Shrine, Everywhere a Shrine

Lynn and I walked slowly around the massive park that was home to Yasaka Jinga, Chion-in, and Shoren-in temples—or shrines. As I wrote previously, the distinction was never clear to me, and Kyoto is blurred together.

A common theme was stone steps.

As we entered one of the compounds, we caught sight of something humping back and forth in a tiny glass cage.  We both recoiled in shock, then approached it slowly.

“Oh, thank god … It’s mechanical,” Lynn said.

“I thought it was a crippled child!” I said, relieved.  I can say “crippled,” which is politically incorrect now, because I spent much of my youth at Shriner’s Hospital for Crippled Children.  They changed the name to something less pointed years ago.

“I thought it was a very small disabled person,” said Lynn.

I believe visitors were were meant to make an offering, then stick their hands into the tiny window to touch the bodhisattva for good luck.

We walked beyond each shrine and climbed steps as far as we would go.  We were the only visitors to a cemetery where Princess Sen was buried.  This was something we gleaned from a map or guidebook, but there was nothing to mark where she was interred or who she was.  The views were worth the climb.  It was silent except for an occasional bird call.

The serenity was thanks to these and other hand-tools.

Later, in a garden, we sat on a bench and observed a gardener at work.  You may just be able to make out his silhouette in the center below.  He worked on his knees, wearing long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, gloves, and a traditional straw hat.  Using a hand-trowel, he knelt forward and dug away at something.

Then he sat back on his knees and stayed that way, looking down at his work, before working away again.

Getting things done fast was clearly not a priority.  We didn’t see any other gardeners.  How he did he keep it all up—was this such an old, established garden that it didn’t require much maintenance?  That seemed unlikely.  There were ponds and bridges, moss lawns and trees,  and meticulously-raked sand.

“I saw those prehistoric trees in the outback, in Australia,” I commented.  “They’re low maintenance for sure.”

“Maybe there isn’t much to do now because it’s the rainy season,” Lynn said.  That seemed like a possibility.

At the bottom of a set of stairs we admired this goddess.

“She looks like a Buddhist version of the BVM,” I said.

“Yes,” Lynn replied.  The Virgin Mary with wings.  She’s lovely.”

As we exited a garden, we were greeted by stone welcoming committees.

“Is it a cemetery?” Lynn wondered.  There were no signs.

“Or a garden store?” I guessed.  “You know, like in the US or the UK where you can buy gnomes and fake deer?”

“I like the cheery chap with the kumquat on his lap,” Lynn said.

We found a tea house on the grounds and were led into a private room with sliding screened walls.  Everything was tranquil simplicity itself, including the placemats.

Based on the photo menu, I ordered the eggplant dish I’d enjoyed the day before. Untranscribable noises of appreciation issued involuntarily from me as I ate.  “Mmm…I have to ask Taro what this topping is,” I managed to articulate.  He had offered to answer any questions that came up after our class, whether about culture or cooking.

It turns out this was a sauce called miso dengaku, which is made with sake, sugar, miso, and a sweet wine called mirin.  It is used to top off eggplant, daikon, tofu, or whatever else your imagination dreams up.  I’ve tried making it twice since returning from Japan, with mixed success.

Japan is a land of contrasts.  Later that evening we dined in a dive that featured horse meat sashimi, innards stew, and deep-fried chicken cartilage. Some of the customers were smoking inside, something I experienced here and there throughout the month.

On the plus side, the place had great vintage beer posters.

We ate nuts and talked about international development.

How do you categorize a wealthy country that eats horses, we wondered?