Exploring Japan: A Return Visit

"Finding Japan's Past and Present," with photographs taken by Marcia Jacobson, Ithaca Journal, Sept. 25, 2004, 11A-12A.

Blending historical sites dating back to the first millennium and modern conveniences, our Japanese trip balanced traditional culture venues such as Kyoto's wondrous temples with innovative recent technology like the bullet train (Shinkansen), Tokyo's modern architecture, and Kyoto's impressive new railroad station.

In the past four years, Marcia Jacobson, my wife of six years, and I have been taking tours that visit Asia: India, Nepal, Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia. Shortly before meeting her, I had travelled--- while teaching at the University of Hawaii in 1992-3-- to China, Japan, Indonesia and Australia. We booked with a company called Smartours a trip entitled "Discover Japan" from July 16th to July 25th, leaving and returning to Los Angeles, the trip's point of departure. (We had used Smartours before with reasonable satisfaction). The tour included four nights each in Tokyo and Kyoto, a few days and half-days of guided sightseeing, and a good deal of time to do our own exploring. While this is the shortest tour we ever took, it was also the most efficient in the sense that, unlike past tours, we didn't spend much time travelling from place to place--except for the 12 hour non-stop flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo and the even longer flight home with a stopover in Seoul. Indeed, on past Asian trips, we often lost almost a full day getting to and waiting in airports and then busing to hotels upon arrival.

This particular tour didn't include a rigid schedule or group lunches and dinners--something we found a major plus since we do not like too many organized activities, long days on buses, or meals homogenized to a one size--or one-taste--fits all. And on longer tours we weary of our fellow tour-mates as I am sure they do of us.

Spending two nights in LA before our departure gave us the opportunity to see the stunning Getty museum, which I had seen in its prior location in Malibu, a venue which will soon be used for the Getty's ancient art. What is most impressive about the Getty is the physical site--the gardens and landscaping even more than the imposing physical structure--rather than the actual paintings, which are splendid but as a collection not in the league of the world's great collections of Western art that one would find in the Met in New York or the Louvre.

In Japan we had to contend with record breaking temperatures of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by high humidity. I am not sure I have ever been in a more uncomfortable place--and that includes Southern Egypt-- and it affected how much we walked. Usually we walk at least five and often eight miles a day in cities as a way of experiencing the life, neighborhoods, and physical shape of that place. But here we found ourselves relying on exceptional, frequent, inexpensive, and dependable public transportation and took subways and buses and an occasional taxi.

What makes Japan relatively easy to visit is that the people are, as I discovered on both my visits, among the most accommodating people in the world. When asked directions they struggle mightily to understand, ask for your maps, stop others on the streets, apologize profusely for the delay in getting an answer, and even walk you to your destination.

The Japanese are the most polite people I have encountered, always apologizing if they can't help and trying to please in shops and restaurants. Buying a nineteenth-century scroll for our home in the art and antique section of Kyoto (the area around Shinmonzen-dori in the Gion area of Eastern Kyoto) was a gentle and satisfying experience. It was if we were the shop owner's guests, not simply his customers. With his limited English the elderly shop owner could only tell us so much about the scroll in which we were interested and eventually bought, but he found and xeroxed material in Japanese which our good friend Brett de Barry translated for us. Japanese retailers do not as a rule bargain.

One difficulty about which visitors need be forewarned: the Japanese study written English in schools and learn the grammar but, as several educated Japanese explained, they do not learn how to speak English and also may be more reticent than some other Asian cultures to try. Indeed, in cities and tourist areas (and often even ouside the major cities of China, Thailand, or even Vietnam and Cambodia) one is more likely to find people who understand simple English.

In Tokyo we stayed at the Prince Hotel, a full service tourist hotel with reasonable amenities, near the centrally located Tokyo tower. We had a king-size bed, the air-conditioning was adequate, and the service was excellent. After a guided tour of Tokyo, we attended a late afternoon Kabuki performance at the famous Kabuki-Sa theatre. This ritualized theater, combining song, dance, and drama was not so easy to follow but fun to observe. One can buy inexpensive gallery tickets for a partial performance (in our case, one act of 85 minutes) to get the flavor. While one can purchase audios in English, a little reading prior to going gives a strong idea of what is going on; the plots often contain violent family quarrels and vengeful murders.

Another Tokyo highlight was Senso-ji, a major Buddhist temple complex which is also a Shinto shrine; it is in the center of the Asakusa area, a lively area with shops and stalls. Frequently Shinto shrines are on the same site as Buddhist temples. Here children wanting to speak English and parents wanting us to take pictures of us with their children approached us, but no one asked us for money as might have happened elsewhere. Tokyo's most famous department store, Mitsukoshi, in the Ginza district is worth a visit; not only does it have a food court worthy of Harrods in London, but it gives one a sense of how Japanese value western high-end goods as well as their own traditional garb such as kimonos.

The immaculate and comfortable bullet train, taking us from Tokyo to Kyoto in less than two hours, is a pleasurable adventure in its own right. Our hotel in Kyoto, the comfortable and efficient but hardly elegant New Miyako, is located most conveniently across from the railroad station from which subways and buses as well as trains depart.

Kyoto was the capitol from 794 to 1868. Perhaps the most impressive site in Kyoto was Nijo-jo, the castle built in 1603 by the shogun Tokugawa to emphasize that he had replaced the emperor as the central political figure. Kyoto has over 1600 Buddhist temples and 200 Shinto shrines, many of which have unique architecture, and we tried to see some of the major ones. Among the temples, we especially enjoyed Chion-in with its 79 foot entrance at the top of a considerable number of steps; Higashi-Hongan-ji, the second largest wooden structure in Japan; and Sanjusangen-do, a temple containing 1001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy. Our favorite temple was the Kiyomizu-dera which stands on a steep hillside and overlooks the city. To Ithacans, its boast of a waterfall seemed charmingly risible when we discovered three small trickles of water. One walks to this temple through some winding streets with many tourist shops, although off the central streets are some fine pottery shops.

One day the tour took a half day bus from Kyoto to the temple complex Todai-ji in Nara, Japan's first capital, to see the world's largest indoor Buddha, which dominates the world's largest wooden structure, the Daibutsu-den. The temple is home to a deer park. The supposedly tame spotted deer became quite aggressive when Marcia fed them with some grain cakes sold on the premises; indeed, she was actually bitten, albeit not seriously. In Nara we also visited Kasuga Taisha, a shrine famous for the 2,000 stone lanterns on the paths that approach it. Unlike other of our tour members, we took time to visit some of the major museums including the Kyoto National Museum, which has splendid works from every era of Japanese history, and the National Museum of Modern Art.

We find that visits to markets are a not only great fun but wonderful way to see how a culture lives, what they harvest and eat, and how they do business with one another. While in Tokyo Marcia and I awoke one morning at 4:45 to take a taxi to the fish auction near the Ginza district by 5:30 and to tour the wholesale fish market as well as the adjoining fruit and vegetable market. At these markets, one had to be on the ready to avoid being hit by various commercial vehicles delivering and removing purchased items, but the merchants were hospitable.

Although I grew up close to the ocean and know something about ocean fish, I saw a wide variety of fish and sea creatures that were new to me. Japan is an island that has traditionally lived on what the sea provides. I thought of the words of a Japanese fisherman: "The sea is beautiful. . . .The sea is my friend. It allows me to take fish" (Hiroshi Fukumine, quoted in Norimitsu Onishi, "The Old Man Has Begun to Fear His Old Friend the Sea," in the New York Times, A4, July 13, 2004)

When most Americans think of Japanese food, their minds and appetites turn to tempura, sushi, sashimi and versions of sukiyaki served in Japanese steak houses of years past. But we found a variety of other foods at restaurants specializing in noodles (soba--thin, brown buckwheat noodles and udon--thick white wheat noodles) soups, and pancakes. While we were warned about how expensive Japanese restaurants were, we found excellent, moderately priced restaurants in department stores and in major rail stations. For example, the new Kyoto station (Kyoti Eki) --a modern, asymmetrical, architectural marvel built in 1997-- incorporates a whole shopping mall including the department store where we ate. The store has, in a section on the top floor called "the cube," seven restaurants on its top floor, each with a different focus and specialty. One focuses on dishes with eel, although my wife wanted to pass on that one. We did sample one that stressed garlic dishes. Another that we enjoyed specialized in Japanese pancakes called okonomiyaki that is a mixture of vegetables, meat, and seafood in an egg-and-flour batter grilled at the diner's table.

The hotels provided a choice of Japanese breakfasts, western breakfasts, or a mixture of the two. Since we like some bread courses and juice at breakfast, we chose the latter most days although we did have the Japanese breakfast with its smoked and dried fish, miso soup, and tofu dishes.

Japan has landscapes recalling upstate New York. On my prior visit, I enjoyed the mountainous terrain when I travelled through the more rural areas of Northern Japan as far as Sendai and stayed in a small inn known as a ryokan where guests may don kimonos, take a thermal bath, and have breakfast and dinner served traditional style in one's room.

During this trip, we took an entire day excursion to Mt. Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park. The bus ascended as far as Mt. Fuji's fifth station from where we had several good looks at the magnificence of Japan's most notable mountain with its perfect cone shape. Young people--and some older ones-- hike to Fuji's top, often departing at midnight, so as to be on the top at sunrise, and returning at 10am; on occasion, they go a good deal of the way on horseback. On the way back from Fuji, we had lunch at the hot spring town of Hakone before taking a scenic boat ride on Lake Ashi to a cable car that took us up Mt. Komagatake where we had a spectacular view not only of Mt. Fuji but of the lake and park below.

Dress, especially for young women, has changed since my 1993 visit. What I call "International adolescence and young adult style" now dominates the cities. Eleven years ago I didn't see women dressed in tight jeans, with long hair died a reddish tint, western make up, and some with even with bare tummies. Their mothers, while less conservatively dressed than 11 years ago, wear clothing that was in style in the US two decades ago. Men in white-collar jobs wear jackets and ties, even on the hottest days. While women play a larger role in the workplace than in the past, many of them work part-time.

We were sorry to have missed the Peace Memorial Museum at Hiroshima, where the Americans dropped the first Atomic bomb, and I would have liked to return to Yokohama, the second largest city where I spent a good deal of time during my prior visit because I was guest at the nearby American naval base. But, while we learned a minute fraction of what our Cornell friends who spent considerable time in Japan know, we felt that we got a taste of Japanese culture and some sense of how it compares with other Asian countries that we have visited. When, two weeks after returning, we visited Boston's Museum of Fine Arts which boasts the world's finest Japanese collection--including wonderful paintings, ceramics, shogun costumes-- outside Japan, we could enjoy it far more than we otherwise would have or than we had before our recent Japan trip.