Back in the USA–Final Day in Los Angeles

En Route Home: Shanghai-Los Angeles

We organized a taxi and were up and away, the next morning and flew from Pudong to Los Angeles—a 13 hour flight that surprisingly went quickly as we watched The Wolf of Wall Street and All is Lost (both of which we enjoyed immensely).

Last Day in Los Angeles:

In Los Angeles, we checked into the Radisson Airport hotel which was just 5 minutes away. The free shuttle bus dropped us off there and we tried hard to catch a much-needed nap before Chriselle arrived to spend the day with us. Alas, neither one of us could fall asleep easily.

An hour later, she was with us. We dressed and she drove us to the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena as we thought we’d have enough energy to take it in. However, I have to say that although its collection is superb, 45 minutes into our visit, I was staggering with jetlag and had to call a halt to it.

Chriselle then drove us to her place where we had a fabulous reunion with her dogs, Ferris and Herky and then fell fast asleep for a couple of hours. Robert got home at 7. 30 when we dressed again and got ready for our dinner appointment and an early birthday celebration for me at Osteria Mozza, Mario Battali’s restaurant in Los Angeles. We had ourselves a truly amazing meal with a sampler of mozzarella and buratta cheese, a lovely Valipocelli red wine, lamb chops, goat-cheese filled ravioli, spaghetti with sea urchin and hangar steak—not to mention the amazing desserts of Nancy Silverton whose cioccolato (a dense chocolate cake) and almond tart were the final touches of gastronomic greatness that ended our evening and indeed our holiday.

Robert and Chriselle dropped us back to the Radisson Hotel for a good night’s sleep before our early morning flight, the next morning, on American Airlines, and then it was all over. We were finally home at Southport at about 11 pm after I had spent my entire birthday airborne.


Our travels had come to an end—and exciting though they were, it was not a moment too soon. Both Llew and I were footsore and exhausted and although we had been deeply enlightened and fascinated by the Far East, we had probably bitten off more than we could chew. We were ready to sleep in our own bed and bathe in our own bath tub again.

In China Finally! Sashaying Around Shanghai


Sashaying Around Shanghai, China

The Narita Express train (easily accessible from Tokyo’s Main Station) whisked up off to Narita airport at. 7 15 am. It is a modern, sleek and efficient service and although the distance covered is great, the speed is so enormous that one arrives at Narita Airport within the hour. Our Japan Rail Passes were valid for travel on this line—which saved us a neat buck or two.

Flying to China on China Eastern Airlines:

The flight from Tokyo to Shanghai took about two and a half hours. Check-in was peaceful but already we could see a visible difference in the manner in which the Japanese handle business and service tasks (with quiet and extremely polite efficiency) and the way the Chinese do it (brusque, lacking smiles or finesse and much less efficient). We knew we were going to miss Japanese culture and work ethic after more than two weeks of being spoiled by their kind professionalism.

Service aboard the aircraft was nothing to rave about either but there was an impressive level of efficiency at Pudong International Airport in Shanghai where we landed to go through Immigration formalities. That done, we left the airport terminal in search of the Airport Bus No. 2 (as instructed by the folks at the NYU faculty accommodation in Pudong where we would be staying). We found the bus stop easily enough and ten minutes later, were on our way after purchasing a ticket for 22 yuan each on the bus. And that was when our first impressions of Shanghai greeted us.

Shanghai is clearly a city on the move and on the rise. A network of soaring flyover highways connect Pudong airport with the city center enabling traffic to move swiftly past concrete jungles that are mushrooming up quicker than you can say“Chop Suey” (which, incidentally, we did not find on any menu in China!). Cranes are everywhere, high-rise buildings reach for the skies in close clusters that form gated communities for the nouveau riche of this economically galloping society. What is marvelous is that while the population is burgeoning and youngsters are flocking into the urban metropolitan cities (Shanghai, Beijing) seeking employment and advancement opportunities, the infrastructure (roads, highways, bridges, universities) is keeping up magnificently with them so that they are taking for granted an extraordinary quality of life of which its nearest rival, India, can only dream. I was completely smitten by its attitude and its accomplishment.

About forty minutes later, we were deposited at the bus terminal near Jing’An Temple, a beautiful gilded confection of pagoda roofs, columned terraces and wide walkways that made up one of the city’s landmark places of worship. No doubt, once upon a time, it buzzed with devotees—today, all I saw were tourists clicking pictures as China’s religious fervor has been suppressed by Communism. From the bus terminal, we found a taxi (plying in droves outside in the busy shopping complexes that included high-end names such as Armani, Zara, Gap, etc. For 20 yuan, we were dropped off, ten minutes later, at our accommodation, the Oakwood Residence, which is where Visiting NYU Faculty stay when on teaching assignments at NYU—Shanghai. It was they who had recommended this place to us—and we were wowed by these classy service apartments!

A concierge on the ground floor helped us with our baggage and directed us to a fifth floor Receptionist who swiftly checked us in, handed us keys, a map of the city and instructions for taking a cab to start seeing the city center. Five minutes later, we were entering our beautiful studio apartment on the 20thfloor with its gorgeous wide balcony that offered stunning views of the city’s Pudong area. We gasped at the superbly-appointed efficiency kitchen, the swanky bathroom and wonderfully comfortable bed. Llew switched on the giant TV to catch a Wimbledon preview in English—after more than two weeks of Japanese TV, it was wonderful to be able to understand what was being said.

Off to the Old City:

But, much as we would have loved to linger in our five-star accommodations (such a luxury after the handkerchief-size rooms we had endured in Japan), we got ready to leave for the taxi ride to the “Old City” which is constructed around the YuYuan Gardens, a famous landmark in the city center. We reached there within a half hour and made our way to the elaborately curved Chinese pagoda rooflines that we could see from the main road (Renmin Road). Once we got there, it was like being in Chinese Disneyland. The attempt to reconstruct Shanghai as it looked two hundred years ago when men roamed around in pyjamas wearing long pigtails and conical straw hats, has resulted in a wonderland that completely floors the visitor. Built entirely of timber early in the 20th century within the walls of what is referred to as the Old City, this space is a star attraction today as golden dragons and giant gilded lions decorate the structures.

For the next one hour, we roamed around in a maze of narrow streets lined with modern shops selling jewelry, jade, souvenirs, tea, painted scroll wall-hangings, etc. and a variety of food items upon which the Chinese were just falling. The place was crowded as entire Chinese families had zeroed in on the area for an evening out. We found local delicacies being devoured and we could not resist purchasing long skewered, batter-fried crispy soft shell crab that is a seasonal delicacy that the Chinese adore. It was sprinkled over with a spice powder that made the entire dish delicious and Llew and I who shared a skewer with me thought it a very good buy indeed.

More meandering around the area led us deeper and deeper into the heart of the Old City towards the Huxinting Tea Room, a temple-like pagoda-ed structure that you can enter for a cup of traditional Chinese tea. Because it was mobbed, we avoided it and bustled around through the outskirts of the walled city with the idea of wending our way towards the city’s next attraction, the Bund.

Strolling Along the Bund:

Arriving at the Bund meant leaving Old 18th century Shanghai behind and entering into the 19thcentury where, under British colonial control, a modern European quarter was created on the banks of the Huangpo River that slices the city in half. Think Marine Lines in Bombay with the ferocity of the Arabian City on the one hand and the row of Art Deco residential buildings across the busy thoroughfare. Well, the Bund is a similar creation. Only instead of the Arabian City, there is the placid river flowing along and instead of the residential buildings, there are solid, colonial, commercial buildings (mainly banks and financial edifices) that had made Shanghai (after London and Hongkong), one of the richest cities in the world.

Arriving at the Bund also gives visitors their first glimpse of 21st century Shanghai which sits astride the Huangpo on the opposite bank in what has come to be known as Pudong. What was once swampland and later the heart of the Chinese underworld with its brothels, bars and gangster activity, today shows evidence of the miraculous resurrection of a Communist country that is determined to stake its place in the developed world as a power to reckon with. Its mindset is reflected in the towering skyscrapers that crowd Pudong, most noticeable of which is the Orient Pearl and TV Tower that resembles the Seattle Needle but is much more creatively illuminated. Every few seconds, its lighting is programmed to turn a different color—so that no two pictures of the tower at night can be exactly the same. Yes, it does offer an Observation Deck and getting up there is high on the list of the Chinese who visit from other parts of the country; but its neighbors are just as impressive—the Jin Mao Tower, designed by a firm of Chicago architects, the World Financial Building, etc. Just as in London where cheese graters, gherkins and walkie-talkies are rapidly transforming the modern skyline or Dubai where the rate of growth of the skyscraper city is so rampant that the skyline changes every week, so too here, the impact is awesome. Neon advertisements run along the facades of the buildings as slow junks ferry passengers along the river for dinner cruises.

But by this point in time, it began to rain and being sans our brollys, we were grateful to take shelter on the Bund under a giant umbrella put up by a salesman. Soon rainwater pooled on the sidewalks and the lights of the buildings, so beautifully illuminated on the Bund periphery were reflected softly as to create a magical effect while we walked by each one of them taking in their Victorian solidity or Art Deco delicacy. As we moved along, we were part of the great crowds of local Chinese enjoying the wet summer evening, their enthusiasm none the worse for the general dampness in the air. If China is the world’s most populous country, it was definitely evident this evening as thousands surged forward and back in this busy quarter.

Being instructed to enter the Fairmont Peace Hotel, we did just that and admired its Art Deco ambience. Recently refurbished at a great cost, the building scintillates with five-star charm. In a long gallery, referred to as the Peace Photography Museum, we saw pictures of the original hotel’s founder, Sir Victor Sassoon, with leading lights of his time: Charlie Chaplain, Noel Coward, even later politicians of the Revolution such as Chou El-Lai and Mao Zedong. It was a nice photo capsule of the life and times that the hotel had seen.

Night Time on Nanjing Road:

Back out on the Bund, we decided to go out in search of some dinner and were swept, once again, by the momentum of the crowds to Nanjing Road which is the busiest thoroughfare of the city. Today, the road dazzles, especially at night, with the over-sized neon signs of designer clothiers such as Versace and Ralph Lauren who are catering to the money-ed Chinese consumer with his love for all things Western. Malls rise up at every street corner. Their garish neon signs announce food offerings through pictures of restaurants to be found in their food courts. Unfortunately, much of it is in Chinese and virtually no one on the streets can communicate in English. Going only by instinct, we found a place on the 7th floor of a mall—we don’t know the name of the mall or the restaurant. All we know is that it exhibited pictures of what Llew called “recognizable Chinese food” at very reasonable prices and so in we were.

We found ourselves in a massive restaurant with at least 300 covers but most of the tables were empty as the Chinese end their dinners early. It was about 9. 00 pm when we sat down to eat—late by Chinese standards. Still, we were very warmly welcomed by the sweet girlish wait staff who couldn’t speak or understand English but were eager to please. They seated us, presented us with a packet of wet wipes, poured us Chinese warm green tea into tiny cups and presented us with the extensive menu, all the dishes of which had accompanying pictures.

It did not take us long to order Chinese Cabbage (Bok Choy) with Garlic and Chilli Peppers and a Dish of Stir-Fried Duck with Onions and Black Pepper. We also ordered one small bowl of steamed rice. Our dishes arrived within ten minutes and left us awed—they were so scrumptious. For the next hour, we took our time savoring the two courses, washing it down with green tea and then helping ourselves to some more as the portions served were huge. And when our bill arrived, we were stunned by how little we had paid for such a good meal. We were also stunned that we were charged extra for the tea and for the packets of wet wipes only one of which we had actually used!

It was difficult to find a cab back to our hotel after our dinner as most merry-makers had the same objective. But soon we were in one of them and wending homeward. Our hotel staff had presented us with cards which were printed in Chinese that said, “Please take me back home to the Oakwood Residence”. The cabbies read these printed cards and took us home with no difficulty. Needless to say, we were grateful for our glamorous facilities, our steaming showers and our air-conditioned room and we fell asleep exhausted, quite charmed by Shanghai and the first impression it had made on us.

Still Totally Transfixed by Tokyo


Still Totally Transfixed by Tokyo

Although our hotel is ideally located (right opposite Tokyo’s Main Station), it is tiny, its attached bathroom so minuscule that the two of us cannot stand inside at the same time. Still, with Llew showering in the morning and me at night, we managed somehow to get ourselves organized for an early-morning excursion to, of all places, the local Fish Market.

Off to the Tshujiki Fish Market:

Tokyo’s Fish Market is a huge tourist attraction for two reasons: the early morning tuna auctions that take place at 5. 30 are a most exciting spectacle—however, they involve arriving by 3. 30 am, taking a number and hoping to fall within the 120 places that are allotted to visitors. If you do not make the cut, you can still stay for the opening of the wholesale buying which begins at 9. 30 am. We left home at about 8. 30, arrived near the Fish Market to find large numbers of tourists heading in the same direction. Although too late for the auction, they were there for the second reason the venue is so popular: Sushi Brunch at the Fish Market based on the delicious fresh catch of that same morning. Needless to say, we found the place dirty and wished to get out as quickly as we could. Plus, Llew, who is not a fish eater, was not going to join me in eating sushi for brunch—so he whisked himself off for a saunter around the premises while I ate a solitary meal at a small place that was filled with locals eating bowls of rice with fresh sashimi (raw fish) topping them. I settled for the set sushi platter and have to say that it was supremely delicious—the fish was as soft as butter and deeply flavorful.

Visit to the Meiji Jinju Shrine:

Yes, it was time to visit yet another shrine and Meiji Jinju is the most important one in all Japan as it serves as the private shrine of the emperor and his family. We had pretty much mastered the art of using the subway system by this stage as the temple was far away. It was a drizzly day and we were grateful for our umbrellas. However, the temple is nothing to rave about—apart from its associations with the Meiji emperors who brought great prosperity to Japan in the Pre-World War I period (the memorials for the popular emperor and his consort are here), there is really nothing by way of architecture in this space and we were rather disappointed in having hiked up to this part of town.

It was time to turn our sights on to something different—and we headed next to the very north of the city to the area known as Ueno.

Exploring Ueno and Museum City:

Ueno is kind of like Museum City in Tokyo—home of the most important museums from the Fine Arts one to the Museum of Natural History which is a child’s delight. The guide book said that if we had the time for just one, we should make it the Tokyo National Museum that contained a capsule of the history and culture of the country through the ages. And that was what we did. Again, we were stunned by the hordes of folks heading to the museums—and these were not tourists, mind you, but local Japanese folk who are clearly deeply culture-conscious and patronize such institutions on a regular basis.

A Visit to Tokyo National Museum:

Had we the time to explore Tokyo National Museum at our leisure, no doubt we’d have enjoyed it more. As it turned out, we used our guide books to pick out the highlights and ended up spending about two hours reviewing Japan’s classical contribution to the world. And so we traipsed from one gallery to the next, starting on the top floor and making our way down. We saw ancient sculpture (a great deal of Buddhas and Bodhisatavas) such as the ones we had seen at Nara and Uji and then moved on to the galleries that showcase the county’s artistic creations in the form of ceramics, metalwork, lacquerware, jade carvings, etc. Finally, we ended our visit with a look at the treasures of Horyu-Ji Temple which are located in a special modern building.

Now having been to Horyu-Ji Temple ourselves, only a few days previously, it was of special interest to us to see this marvelous collections of Buddha statues as well as a large number of archeological items found on this site—that go back about 1000 years. Again, by this stage, we were seriously afflicted by tourist-fatigue and decided to sit somewhere, away from Ueno and its buzz, so as to rest our feet.

Viewing Tokyo From A Lofty Vantage Point:

And, so we rode the subway once again to the commercial heart of the city in order to tick off the next item on our To-Do List for the day: a visit to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which is actually the seat of national administration.

Built by Japan’s renowned architect Tange Kenzo (who also designed the Cenotaph at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima), this building is composed of twin towers that sit on a lofty base. They rise far above the city of Tokyo providing stunning views—on a clear day, one can actually see Mount Fuji from the observation deck on the 44th floor. Of course, I was keen to see this building as an example of the kind of contemporary futuristic architecture that one now finds in many modern world cities (such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai), but what was more, was that one could gain grand views of the city for free!

Arriving there just before dusk on a very cloudy day did not do much for the views we hoped to receive; but it did give us a very graphic idea of the mushrooming of this urban metropolis and of its essential design aesthetic. Clearly, the kind of skyscrapers going up in these concrete jungles are not just unappealing boxes. As architects vie with each other to produce eye-popping buildings, new skylines are emerging that are also artistically appealing—and that is what we noticed about Tokyo from the heights of hundreds of feet above the ground to which we were whisked in a high-speed elevator. It felt a little bit like the visits we had made to the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York, many years ago or visiting the Burj Khalifa in Abu Dhabi, the world’s tallest building.

Back to Takashimaya for Some Shopping:

With just hours to go before our departure from Tokyo, I felt the need to return to Takashimaya (we had visited and shopped at its Kyoto branch earlier in the week), the famous department store, to pick up a few more gifts. This gave us the opportunity to see East and West Shinjuki which is the heart of a busy commercial center. Crowds of folks were picking their way on public transport to get home at the end of the day and we were swept along in the sheer frenzy of their energy. We soon found the store and picked up a few more gifts—mainly by way of silk scarves and bags—and then spent some time in its awesome food department. Once again we were dazzled by the unique wrapping and display skills of the Japanese and were tempted by a number of samplers generously handed out to us: shumai dumplings, rice crackers, frozen mango and melon treats, little jellies, etc. It was a nice introduction to the kind of items Japanese folks buy as gifts.

Back to our Hotel for a Rest—then the Tokyo Tower:

By this time, we were exhausted and a rest was urgently called for. We made our way back to our hotel and rested for a bit, then showered and set out on yet another mission: a Visit to the famous Tokyo Tower which is an exact (if slightly shorter) replica of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Lit up brilliantly at night, this edifice towers above the city and can be spied on the subway routes as they whisk people about the city.

We quickly found our way there as I was keen to get some pictures. As night had fallen over the city, we were fortunate enough to find the tower in all its illuminated splendor—and it was quite wonderful indeed. We reached there at 9. 45 and since the tower was closed to visitors at 10. 00 pm, all we managed to do was enter the building to get an idea of the lighting up close and personal. But it was certainly worth the late-evening excursion.

What a lovely walk it was, on our last night in Japan, breathing in the cool clear night air, watching the city’s youngsters have a great time at local eateries and amusement arcades and passing up an atmospheric Buddhist temple whose roof lines contrasted strangely with the modern metallic lines of the Tokyo Tower! We loved the city, were delighted with its helpful, polite, clean and organized people and could easily see ourselves happily living in this part of the world.

Needless to say, we were deeply fatigued by the time we crawled into bed at about 11.00 pm. With our packing done, we set alarms for our departure from Japan on the morrow, and our arrival at our next destination—Shanghai in China.

Until then, sayonara!

Totally Smitten by Tokyo

Fabulous Sighting of Fujisan:

So, as hoped, the Mountain God was benevolent this morning and, as soon as I awoke, at 6. 30 am in Michael’s Hotel at Mount Fuji, I rushed to the window to see if the cloud cover over Japan’s tallest mountain had lifted. And guess what? It had! There is stood, Mount Fuji, is all its brilliant, snow-streaked glory, as we gazed upon it transfixed. Needless to say, we took loads of pictures, then washed, dressed and got ourselves ready for our long trek to Tokyo—our objectives in getting all the way to Fuji Five Lakes fully vindicated.

A Far Less Arduous Journey to Tokyo:

Getting to Tokyo from Mount Fuji was far more pleasant than getting to Mount Fuji from Kyoto—and also less expensive as we were able to use Japan Rail passes most of the way. We caught a local commuter (Fujityo) train line (at a cost of 970 yen each) from Gekkouji station for the 45 minutes ride to Otsuki, during which we had fabulous views of Fujisan—much to our delight. Once we reached Otsuki, I raced to the Chinese bakery outside to pick up almond croissants and coffees as we had gone without breakfast. Procuring reserved seats through our Japan Rail Passes, we found ourselves on a fairly good train line—although it wasn’t the Shinkansen. I was able to blog on the train and bring my journal up to date, and, two hours later, we were pulling into Tokyo Station, already feeling quite dazzled by Japan’s capital city.

Checking into Hotel Heimat:

Thanks to an old friend from Bombay, Vivek Pinto, who now resides in Tokyo and who had arranged accommodation for us through his Japanese wife, Hisako, we found ourselves checking into a really convenient hotel called Hotel Heimat right opposite Tokyo Station—it could not have been better located. Since check-in time was 3. 00 pm and we had arrived at 11.00 am, we stashed our baggage in the storage room and went out to discover Japan’s capital. And what a fabulous journey of discovery it turned out to be! We simply loved it, from the get go.

Looking for the Tourist Information Office:

But first things first: the hotel did not have maps in English, so off we went across the street to the Japan Tourist Bureau to pick up maps in order to get oriented. While I had photocopied material from my travel guide books, I hadn’t found the time to read them adequately before setting out on our sightseeing mission. Hence, we had no choice but to wing it. Based on our location, it appeared as if the Imperial Palace was our nearest bet—and so off we set in its direction.

Marunoushi and the Imperial Palace East Gardens:

In order to get to the Imperial Palace, we had to trek across Marunoushi, a wonderfully commercial area that reminded us of New York’s Financial District. We crossed the beautifully laid out grid of streets after catching an admiring glimpse of Tokyo’s Main Station–a lovely red brick Victorian structure that reminded us of Melbourne’s Flinders Station (except that Flinders is a warm yellow while this was auburn).

Although the Imperial Palace is not open to the public, it is worth heading towards the grand, sprawling park in which it is located—the lungs of the city of Tokyo. It is a vast green expanse that allows residents to get away from urbanity and immerse themselves in nature. A short walk across a broad water-filled moat brought us to the gates of the East Gardens of the Imperial Palace where a large number of visitors were heading. Once past the main gates, we were given an admission pass each (to be returned upon exit).

The East Gardens are set in the property once owned by the powerful Shogun T…gawa whose bastion was guarded by dozens of samurai who functioned from out of a building called a Bansho. As we proceeded deeper and deeper into the gardens, we passed by solid, towering stone walls that were deeply impressive. But, on the other side, was the softness of a typical Japanese water garden with flowering water iris, loads of azalea bushes and low maple trees that would, undoubtedly, be very special at certain times of year. Even when not in flower, the entire layout of the garden that was started during the Edo Period, i.e, over two hundred years ago, was truly delightful with bamboo fencing, charming bridges, a small waterfall, stone lanterns, etc. We lingered a long while in this space, then found a shady bench on which to plan out the next part of our exploration of this city.

Lunch on Ramen Street:

Ramen Street is located in the basement of Tokyo Station and is highly touted by Lonely Planet as the place to go for really great Japanese-style noodles. Well, we did get there as hunger pangs made their presence felt urgently. We could not say where we were nor what we ate (as everything was written in Japanese) but we chose our dishes at an automated vending machine, paid for them with cash that we fed into the machine—thus, no money changed human hands! We had joined a long line of locals waiting patiently at the door and figured that since the place was so popular, it probably was good.

And we guessed right! It was absolutely fabulous! A lunge mound of thick noodles arrived in a separate bowl together with a thick, coconut-milk like broth filled with pork, fish and mushrooms. We ate heartily as we listening to the slurping of fellow-diners all around us. At a neighboring table, we were joined by an American couple named Brad and Sarah with whom we entered into conversation. They gave us tips on how to prepare for an excursion to the Tshujiki Fish Market to view the daily auction of tuna.

Ginza—The Beating Heart of Tokyo:

Many moons ago, when I was still a teenager in Bombay, I had read an article in National Geographic magazine about Tokyo’s Ginza that carried the visual feast of brilliant pictures that had made me feel like dropping everything and visiting the area. Well, I only had to wait for four odd decades before I was able to bring reality to my yearnings. Using a walking tour that appears in the DK Eyewitness Guide, Llew and I found our way on foot to this most colorful part of the city that contains a bunch of upscale stores including the very classy Parisian establishment, Printemps. Of course, I was thrilled, as I loved all things French. And how elated I felt when I found a lovely classy hat such as I have seen the elegant Japanese women wearing. I am not entirely sure that I will have the chance to wear it myself but at $25, it made a worthy souvenir of my stay in Japan and I was pleased to pick one up.

Out rambles in the Ginza continued with ducks in and out of stores such as the super-expensive Mikimoto (home of the world’s finest pearls), Matsuya and Mitsukoshi (very luxurious Japanese department stores in which the shoppers dress just to shop!). It was great to people-watch and I did a great deal of it. I am absolutely charmed by the elegance and style of Japanese women that reminds me very much of the kind of sophistication one sees in Paris. At all times, they are simply superbly turned out, their outfits marvelously color-coordinated, their bags and shoes totally trendy. We stepped into a Starbucks for an iced café mocha, the half an hour, continued our rambles in the midst of a very busy afternoon with folks to-ing and fron-ing as they went about the serious business of shopping. Japan is evidently prosperous and there is no sign of poverty anywhere, not even a homeless person anywhere to be seen. If there is one country that seems to have wiped out poverty, this is it.

Back to the Hotel for a Nap and Rest:

Having been on our feet for most of the day, we felt the need for a nap and rest. So, testing our Japan Rail Passes for use on the local Tokyo subway system, we were little to discover that they overlapped. Seekign the station nearest us, we found our way back home in about ten minutes—that’s how well situated our hotel is. Without minutes, I was asleep while Llew pottered with his smart phone. It was about 7. 30 pmn that we set out again—this time to discover Tokyo by night. And what a magical place it is!

Tokyo By Night:

After dark, Tokyo scintillates. And I mean, seriously. The entire city is lit up brighter than Las Vegas. Imagine New York’s Times Square or London’s Piccadilly Circus with their spectacular neon lights, their changing billboards, their hordes of people scurrying about—and there you have it. All of Tokyo is like a circus after night falls.

Using our guide books, we headed on the subway line for Shibuya where the world’s most famous crossing exists. We were instructed, once again, to bag a seat at Starbucks which is head above their heads. Each time the lights changed, hundreds of them surged forward like so many ants (from our perspective) hurrying to their next destination which lights winked and blinked all around them. It really was a stupendous sight.

After about half an hour of watching this fascinating, orchestrated surge of human movement, we took a walking tour throuogh the area known as Central Gai with its hundreds, no thousands, of young folks (high school and college age, who frequent the slot and pachinko machines in the brightly-lit amusement arcades and karaoke bars that make up this area. Record shops, boutiques, eateries, catering to their special needs cram this area and make viewing the rabble of humanity a fantastic sight. The drizzle did not dampen our spirits as it cooled the place down for Tokyo, like Kyoto, is awfully humid and it can be uncomfortable staying outdoors, even after the sun has set.

Back To Our Hotel:

By 10 pm, we were flagging and decided to pick our steps back home. It was been a superb introduction to a city that appeared to be constantly on steroids—but it truly was love at first sight.

Until tomorrow, sayonara

A Sobering Excursion to Hiroshima and An Uplifting One to Miyajima

Hiroshima and Miyajima

We had an ambitious day ahead of us, so it was not surprising that we awoke at the crack of dawn, washed hastily, got dressed and left our hotel, sans breakfast, to catch the earliest train available going west from Kyoto on the island of Honshu which is Japan’s largest and where the major cities are based—including Hiroshima which was on our itinerary for today.

Obtaining Our Japan Rail Passes:

We took the subway from Shijo Karasuma (where our Hotel Via Inn is located) to Kyoto Main station where we made a beeline for the Japan Rail Office to convert our Japan Rail vouchers (only available to foreigners and, therefore, sold only outside Japan—we had purchased ours online in the States before leaving home. These are the equivalent of the famous Eurail Passes in Europe. They cost us $280 for 7 days of unlimited travel on Japan Rail.). After checking passports for identification, the passes were issued to us together with reserved tickets for our ride from Kyoto to Hiroshima (a direct bullet train ride on what is called the Shinkansen) which took approximately two hours. Since we had a few minutes to spare, we crossed the street in front of the station to the Family Mart (Japan’s answer to the 7-11) bought ourselves breakfast sandwiches and lattes and made our way back into the station to catch the 7. 20 am train to Hiroshima. On the train, we had the opportunity to read up some Lonely Planet material that I had photocopied.

Arrival at Hiroshima:

Japan Rail passes took us neatly out of the station at Hiroshima and on to a waiting sightseeing Loop Bus that transports visitors to all the important sites in this incredibly moving city. Having first heard the name of this ill-fated city when we were school kids in India and Pakistan respectively, both Llew and I had to pinch ourselves to believe that we were actually striding on its streets. There is probably not a person in the educated world who is unaware of the fact that at 8. 15 am on August 6, 1945, the US dropped the first-ever atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in a desperate bid to persuade Japan to surrender and thus end World War II. The sightseeing bus takes the visitor to the ‘hypocenter’ of the blast which has been converted into a Peace Memorial Park.

On a Pilgrimage of Peace in Hiroshima:

Before we arrived at the Peace Memorial Park, our bus wound its way around a modern city that has been developed in a grid pattern on what appears like an island between the two rivers that flow through it. One must bear in mind that the entire city was flattened in 1945—which means that no building is older than 60 odd years. Hiroshima has a variety of local transport—buses, trams, street cars. Although modern, some aspects of it have the appearance of being stuck in a 1950s time warp—which is rather interesting.

Arrival at the Atomic Dome Building:

One of the first stops on the Loop Sightseeing Bus is the Atomic Dome Building—which superbly sets the tone for the rest of one’s visit. This building, made of solid concrete in 1915 by a Czech architect called Jan Letzel was the only one that remained erect after the nuclear explosion. (We learned on our tour of the Peace Memorial Museum, later that morning, that nuclear rays do not penetrate concrete—which is why the building and a few concrete bridges survived; the rest of Hiroshima was made of timber which grew into a massive incinerator after the bomb was dropped—a matter that flattened the city within hours).

Despite the fact that this building stood, not too far from the hypocenter, it remained standing although the metal sheeting that covered its dome quickly melted. The shell of the dome that looks like a metal crown remained. After the reconstruction of the city of Hiroshima began, it was decided, despite huge public misgivings, to retain the ruins of the building as a stark reminder of the horrors of nuclear warfare. Today, it is a World Heritage Site and a profoundly sobering one at that. The original brick and mortar rubble lies in thick layers around the building’s ragged foundations with some iron girding still visible within. What used to be the Industrial Promotions Hall of the City is today a sad remnant of the glory and prosperity that was pre-war Hiroshima. We encircled the building, took pictures there and were actually interviewed on camera by a Japanese documentary film crew that was filming a feature on the conversion of this once-residential area into a Peace Park.

Walking Across to the Peace Memorial Park:

Just a few steps ahead, across a bridge over one of the rivers that flows through the city, is the vast Peace Memorial Park that is scattered with monuments erected by various world organizations in memory of those who lost their lives that fateful morning (70,000 instantly, another 70,000 from ‘black rain’ or nuclear fallout that occurred within the next couple of days).

Our first stop was the Bell of Peace that visitors can ring as a mark of respect. It is shaped like the typical Buddhist shrine gongs we have been seeing in all the temples in Japan. Llew and I were struck to see verses from the Bhagvad-Gitasculpted in Marathi and Hindi’s Devnagiri script (which I can read fluently) all around the periphery of the bell.

Our next stop was the Mound of Ashes that contains the ashes of the thousands of victims of the blast who were rendered unrecognizable and who were cremated in a nameless mound that is now covered with fresh green grass and topped by a Buddhist monument.

The third stop on this walking tour in the park was the Children’s Monument for Peace erected in memory of a Japanese girl named Sasaki who was four years old when the blast occurred. At the age of 11, she contracted radiation-related leukemia and was given only a few months to live. Because in Japan, the crane is a symbol of happiness and longevity, she took it into her head to create 1000 origami cranes. She folded them in the desperate belief that if she reached a thousand, she would survive. She did not fold a thousand nor did she survive, but her classmates and friends joined the campaign and created 1000 cranes. Today, Sasaki has become an enduring symbol of the need for nuclear disarmament and school children all over Japan continue to fold cranes in her honor and send them to the Park. In recent years, it was decided to honor her memory by constructing the memorial which consists of a conical sculpture crowned by a metal image of a girl with a crane soaring above her head. Inside the monument is a Crane Bell which visitors can ring. Sasaki’s sad story brought tears to our eyes and a lump to our throats especially as her monument is ringed by glass cases crammed with colored origami cranes that periodically arrive from all over Japan.

Crossing another small bridge, we arrived at the Eternal Flame, which burns through the day and night in honor of those who perished. We paused there for a moment then walked to the Cenotaph, one of the most important sculptural monuments in the park, designed by the Japanese sculptor Tange Kenzo. It looks like a tunnel, a bridge or a shelter—depending on one’s perspective. Beneath it, in a stone vault, are more ashes of victims of the disaster. There is a prayer in Japanese and various plaques encircling the monument in various languages. All of these monuments are lined alongside a pathway that flanks a reflecting pool. The effect of water, green grass and these memorial stones is extremely moving and quieting and we felt quite deeply touched by what we beheld.

Touring the Peace Memorial Museum:

Our stroll through these sculptures eventually brought us to the vast Peace Memorial Museum that runs the breadth of the Park—it is a modern building that tells the story of the city of Hiroshima from its earliest beginnings until the destruction of the bomb and after. We paid an entrance fee of 300 yen each and were rewarded by an English-speaking guide who was summoned to take just the two of us around the museum on a guided tour at 10. 30 am. (We were subsequently joined by another four English speakers which made the entire experience feel like a private tour). Plus, this was perhaps one of the best guides I have ever had on a museum tour. She was fluent, articulate, extremely well-informed and completely balanced in her views. Apart from the enormous amount of information she provided and the complete feeling of enlightenment with which she left us, there was absolutely no bias or sense of judgment about anything she said. She was dispassionate and objective and, therefore, non-controversial.

Thus, she informed us that the reason Hiroshima was chosen as the site for the dropping of the bomb was that after its imperial successes, Japan had grown extremely arrogant and had constructed massive armament manufacturing units and was using Hiroshima as a port from which to ship out its troops across the East during World War II. After America had developed the atomic bomb, she said, it was keen to experiment and determine the impact of nuclear warheads. As the American pilots in the B52 bomber scoured the skies above Japan, they were able to spy the concrete “T Bridge” that spanned the two rivers. This provided them with an accurate hypocenter for the dropping of the bomb—since this was nuclear warfare, it ended in a mushroom cloud, not a crater on the earth. Black Rain dropped over the city for days and brought life to a complete standstill. The few survivors, badly burned, and unaware of the effects of nuclear fallout, remained in the city instead of fleeing it. They became victims of awful suffering in the next few years. Three days after the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a second one was dropped on Nagasaki, and three days later, Japan’s Emperor Hirohito made an unconditional surrender—World War II was over.

The Museum provided graphic accounts of the planning and plotting involved in the dropping of Little Boy as the Bomb was known in code. Apart from pictures, there are the charred remains of all sorts of minutiea that make up our lives: clothing, books, lunch boxes, toys, etc. The remains of childrens’ goods were especially moving: about 400 of them attached to a single school had died in an instant as they were assembled outside for morning assembly. A sole child who remained inside (protected by the concrete of the building’s walls—survived until the age of 80 and passed away recently). However, the survivors were also ostracized for years on end as people were afraid that they were emitters of radio-active rays and did not wish to come into physical contact with them. None of them were able to marry as no one was sure of the impact of nuclear disaster on their reproductive capabilities. It was just layer after layer of horror to which we were exposed on the tour.

Another portion of the museum exhibited the charred remains of tiles, roofs, houses, concrete buildings with glass fragments embedded in them, etc. There were wonderful scaled models of Hiroshima just before the disaster and days later—the contrast was horribly humbling. The museum also contains information on the continuation of nuclear testing and the involvement, in recent years, of other countries such as Israel, India and Pakistan, in the nuclear race.

The guide ended the tour with profound questions for reflection, such as: Could this disaster have been avoided? Could another way have been found to end the war? Did Japan have to wait so long to surrender? Was Kamikaze—the Japanese philosophy of invincibility—largely responsible for the disaster, in the first place? Did America have to drop a second bomb? And was the dropping of the bomb on Nagasaki purely an attempt to test the impact of plutonium on humankind? She did not provide any answers: all she did was leave us to ponder and reflect on the human capacity to cause suffering. Llew and I left the museum feeling so sorry for the people of Japan and yet so admiring of their efforts to build up from the rubble and ashes of their ruin in the manner of the Phoenix, the bird that decorates so many of their Buddhist temples and palaces.

On the Route to Miyajima:

Having seen the main sites in Hiroshima and having learned so much from this experience, we were ready to leave the city at 12 noon to undertake a journey further west on Honshu to the island of Miyajima of which I had only recently become aware. It is recognized as one of the three most scenic parts of Japan and, therefore, warranted a visit.

Getting to Miyajima involved returning to Hiroshima station to take a train (a 26 minute ride) to Miyamaguchi—a small rail head. From there, we walked about five minutes, following good signage, to the Ferry Port, where we boarded a ferry for the ten minute sail to Miyajima which is a small island. Our Japan Rail Passes were accepted everywhere and so we did not pay an extra penny for any of this travel.

We arrived in Miyajima by 1.30 pm after having picked up burgers and ice-cream sundaes from McDonald’s at Hiroshima station. As we approached the island, the sight of the green forest-clad mountains that dipped straight into the water, reminded us very much of the Na Pali Cliffs of Hawai’i’s island of Kauai. It was a very pretty sight. From the ferry port at Miyamaguchi, we could already see the vermillion T-shaped shrine gates known as O-Tori, which at 53 meters tall, happen to be among the most towering of Japan’s shrine gateways and is the iconic subject of the publicity posters brought out by the Japan Tourism Bureau. As our ship headed closer to the Pier on the Island, it loomed bigger and bigger and I became really excited. It seemed to rise right out of the sea as the tide was in—by the end of the afternoon, we were actually able to walk along the ocean bed to the tori and to touch it (an extremely exciting prospect for me) and marvel at the thick coating of barnacles clinging to the sides as the tide had receded enough to make such an adventure possible.

Along the Promenade to the Itsukitsama Shrine:

The island of Miyajima is known for the O-Tori that is part of the Itsukitsama Shrine that dates back to the 12th century—it was built by the shogun known as Yoshimoto who was the subject and hero of Tale of the Heike that I had spent part of last week studying. So I was really thrilled to be in this shrine. It is, like all Japanese Shinto shrines, a series of sub-structures—all painted in vivid vermillion, containing wooden, shaded walkways, a very old Noh Theater and a Main Shrine. We paid 500 yen each to enter and admire the environs with its Ah and Um guardian lions in beautiful teal colored ceramic, its many stone lanterns that line the path to the temple and the multitude of tame deer that are considered sacred and that come to the very hands of visitors seeking nibbles. All of this is extremely atmospheric because the temple is constructed on stilts on the ocean floor and has the dramatic backdrop of the green mountains just behind it to set the tone of contemplation which is so much a part of Shinto Buddhism. I simply could not get over the architecture that I photographed endlessly because the venue lent itself so perfectly to the creation of jaw dropping pictures.

On to the Mijodiani Park:

Right behind the Temple precincts, past kitschy souvenir shops from where we finally found a few Japanese magnets (which we collect), we found a picturesque pathway leading to one of Japan’s most famous public parks: the Mijodiani Park or the Maple Leaf Valley Park. As its name suggests, it truly comes into its own in the autumn, when the thousands of maple trees in the park put on their stunning show of seasonal foliage in shades of orange, red, yellow and brown. There are the typical Monet-favored vermillion arched bridges over burbling brooks with ran with clear water and the stone lanterns punctuating the landscape. It is very pretty indeed and we spent about an hour taking in the glory of this park.

Back to the Pier and on to Hiroshima:

But by 4.00 pm, we began to retrace our steps back to the pier to take the ferry back to the mainland from where we hopped into a train that took us back to Hiroshima in about an hour (from island to city). It was about 5. 00 pm when we decided to have an early dinner.

Okinomiyaki in Hiroshima:

Hiroshima is noted for its okinomiyaki which is very different form the kind found in Kyoto—where it is essentially a stuffed Japanese pancake. This one, in Hiroshima, is not folded over like a stuffed omlette but presented flat and with a huge mound of noodles—either soba or udon, you take your pick.

Lonely Planet provided us with the name of a place called Okinomura Village where in a building near Parco, a busy shopping center, we would find a number of small stalls selling the delicacy. Inquiring around for the exact venue, we chanced to speak to a very sweet Japanese woman with very halting English who was, nevertheless, keen to help us, having spent a while, twenty years ago, at a home stay in California. She actually led us physically to the place and told us to try the item at Asuma’s eatery. This turned out to be quite a delicious treat and although at 11,000 yen (about $11), it was much too large and hearty for either one of us to finish, it was truly delicious. We washed it down with an Asahi draft beer and then made our way back to Hiroshima station by taxi (as the sightseeing bus had ended its runs for the day).

Back to Kyoto:

About two hours later, we were on in Kyoto and heading on the subway to our hotel where we made inquiries about our onward journey tomorrow to Mount Fuji to spy another one of Japan’s most iconic sights—its dormant volcano mountain in the direction of the capital city of Tokyo.

Until then…sayonara

Discovering Mount Fuji and Its Environs

Mount Fuji and Its Environs

Today would have been a most disappointing day but for three occurrences that redeemed it at the very end of the day.

We awoke, as usual, about 6. 30 am, made our way to the Dining Hall of the Hotel Via Inn by 7. 00 am for our last breakfast in this most comfortable of lodgings. The reception staff had been extremely kind to us and despite having almost non-existent English had managed to communicate adequately with us and meet our every need. After breakfasting on ham and cheese bread, croissants with marmalade and butter, corn soup, salad and cocktail sausages, we said our goodbyes and thank-yous to the staff who had made our home away from home in Kyoto such a pleasant experience for over ten days. And then we were off.

Arrival at Kyoto Main Station:

We took the subway down two stations south to Kyoto Main Station from where we used our Japan Rail Passes to procure reserved seats on the Shinkansen (bullet) train headed for Tokyo. We were instructed to get off at Odawara (which was about two hours away on the super express bullet trains that simply zip across the country at astounding speeds—Amtrak can learn a thing or two about promptness, courtesy and general efficiency from this amazing system. Hats off to the Japanese!

We found our platform easily enough and boarded our train for Tokyo. The journey was extremely comfortable, but it was once we got to Odawara that the dreariness began. From Odawara (where we waited about 20 minutes for a connection), we took a train to Mishima (also Japan Rail, also using our Passes). Once we alighted at Mishima, we had no option but to take a bus to climb the mountains. The bus took us as far as Gotemba, about 45 minutes away (a journey that cost us about 600 yen each). From Gotemba, we connected to another bus (after a wait of a half hour) that cost us about 1,140 yen each and took us to Fuji-yoshida. The bus journey was wearying as it was slow and painful and offered nothing by way of scenery or local color.

At Fuji-yoshida, where we arrived at about 2. 00 pm, we had to take a taxi to our lodgings for the night—a very modest Western-style hostel called Michael’s(obtained through Lonely Planet). It is run by an American called Michael Castella who is married to a Japanese woman called Kasuko. Michael also runs an American-style Pub and Café at the base of his hostel that serves $13 burgers! The Tourist Information Center at Fuji-yoshida informed us that the walk to Michael’s would take us twenty minutes—with baggage (even though it was minimal baggage), it would be impossible to reach on foot—so we hailed a taxi and reached there for 1000 yen (about $10)—a very well-spent tenner! Basically, it was a long-drawn out, tiring journey from Kyoto that put us off the beaten track completely and cost us about $25 each in addition to the cost of our Japan Rail Passes. Mind you, throughout the journey, although mountains loomed all around us, there was not a sign of Mount Fuji that we had traveled so far to see.

Just as soon as we were checked by a sweet Japanese girl called May into Michael’s where we were given a private room with showers and toilets down the hallway, we hired the cab again to take us to Kawaguchi-Ko Station where sightseeing buses were available to take us around Mount Fuji.

Touring Mount Fuji and “Fuji Five Lakes”:

After making a brief detour at the bank to exchange some dollars for yen (because almost no one accepts credit card in Japan, apart from the hotels), we arrived at the Kawaguchi-Ko train station where the Green Line Sightseeing Bus would be leaving in ten minutes to take us for a driving tour around the lakes.

So here’s the beef: Mount Fuji is a dormant volcano based on a towering mountain that rises 3776 meters above sea level and is, therefore, often obscured by clouds. Therefore, chances of catching a glimpse of it are rare–as was the case today. We could not see it at all and I felt shattered. It was a terribly overcast day which meant that there were, at best, remote opportunities for sighting. Mount Fuji is ringed by five beautiful lakes. The only way you can appreciate the scenic beauty of this area is by driving around the region. Since we had no car at our disposal, we were left with no option but to take the sightseeing bus. Since the second-last one of the day left at 3. 35 (the last one left at 4. 35), we raced to the bus-stand to board it and off we went.

A Sightseeing Drive about Fuji Five Lakes:

The bus drive took two hours. We did not get off anywhere as we had very little energy left for exploration after our day-long travels to get to this spot and there was only one more bus which would arrive after a whole hour to take us back—so overall, the bus tour was a bit of a loss for us. It would have been a good deal (at 13,000 yen each) had we boarded it in the morning and stayed in the area for 2 days (as the bus ticket is valid for 48 hours).

Still, we made the most of our brief stop here and took in the scenic beauty of the two lakes through which we drove: Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Saiko. As the bus curved around the banks of the lakes, made detours into the cypress and cedar clad forests and made stops at museums, shrines, herbal centers, Bat Caves and Lava Caves to pick up passengers, we got a very good sense of the scenic attractions of this place with its boating, kayaking, fishing, water-skiing and other offerings. In many ways, we were constantly reminded of Lake Wakatipu in New Zealand and the other glorious drives we had taken as we had scoured the South Island, two years ago. But there was still nary a sighting of Mount Fuji for Llew although I do think I saw one side of its conical shape as we had turned a corner.

Early Dinner of Hotoh:

By the time we got off the sightseeing bus, two hours later at Kawaguchiko Station, we were starving (as we had contented ourselves with granola bars for lunch). Lonely Planet had recommended that we try a local dish called Hotoh—a miso soup with mushrooms and butternut squash and thick udon noodles served in a steaming iron pot at the table. It was about 5. 30 pm and we found a very nice restaurant right opposite the station where we decided to try the local delicacy. As luck would have it, the restaurant was located right opposite the gigantic mass of Mount Fuji which, somewhat obligingly, decided to reveal itself to us in slow stages as we ate! Cloud cover from the conical crater lifted and in about ten minutes, we were able to see Japan’s most iconic sight. How thrilled we were! We raced around to the window and left the restaurant, after placing our order, to take pictures of the mountain and, quite suddenly, I felt as if our laborious excursion to Fujisan (as the mountain is known in Japan) became worthwhile.

And then the hotoh arrived—and it was absolutely delicious! The broth was extremely flavorful and the amount of additions to the soup made it a hearty stew and enough for the two of us to feast on. Twenty minutes later, we were replete and decided to go on to the next item on our agenda—a soak in one of the volcanic hot springs at the base of Mount Fuji in a traditional Japanese pastime known as ‘Onsen”. We had already experienced it at the Buddhist monastery in Koyasan but that had been a religious ritual—we decided to try out this secular traditional activity at a commercially-run onsen.

Back on the Train to our Hotel and Off for Onsen:

We found a train, soon enough, that took us very cheaply back to our hostel from Kawaguchi Station (our station was three stops away and was called Gekkouji). Once at the hotel, at the Reception Desk, we met a very sweet American lad called Nate, who recommended an Onsen place and called a cab to take us there—it cost us 1,000 yen to get there (please note that there is no local transport in this area and wherever a location lies beyond a walking radius, one needs to cab it out).

Onsen and After:

The cab driver took us directly to our commercial baths and once inside, we were quickly shown the drill. The Baths are gender-segregated. Llew and I found lockers to stash our belongings, got keys which we wore around our wrists (so as not to lose them). Then, we showered and bathed thoroughly so as to clean our bodies completely and then entered the onsen. This place offered two kinds: indoor ones featuring three different temperatures of water—cool, warm and hot (like in the ancient Roman baths). And outdoor ones—that on a clear day—actually overlook Mount Fuji. The outdoor pool is like a giant hot tub surrounded by volcanic rocks and beautifully landscaped Japanese gardens. I was enchanted.

For the next one hour, I gave myself up entirely to the sheer pleasure of an outdoor hot soak in a steaming bath without a stitch on my body. But for the towel that we had rented (for 300 yen each), you carry nothing into the pool. I soaked for about ten minutes, then emerged in the cold night air, cooled off and then dipped myself in the hot pool again. Japanese women chattered away all around me. One tried to make friends with me. She conveyed to me the certainty that I would sleep well tonight after my hot soak—she was right! And so it went on and on. In and out and in and out for the next half hour I went. I was suspended in a state of bliss so relaxing, so completely liberating that I felt as if I were floating on Cloud Nine. Certainly this was a major redeeming factor in our day.

Melon Ice-Cream Before Bed:

It turned out, when I was reunited with Llew, that he had enjoyed the onsen just as much as I had. He too had opted for the outdoor bathing experience in the male section. When I met him on the wooden slat bench outside, he handed me a warming cup of green tea as the onsen does tend to make you feel dehydrated. Overall, it had been a marvelous experience and we were so glad we did it.

Then, spying a McDonalds just a block away, we entered it looking for dessert. I chose the Melon Shake (which the Korean immigrants of New York introduced to the world) and, boy, was it great! The cold ice-cream, thick and sweet, made the perfect foil to the steaming onsen. About fifteen minutes later, the staff at McDonald’scalled us a cab and in ten minutes we were back in our hotel.

End of a Mixed Sort of Day:

So, at the end of the day, the glimpsing of Mount Fuji, albeit hazily with its streaks of snow running down the conical sides, the delicious bowl of hotoh and the heavenly soak in the onsen, had certainly redeemed the day for us.

Would we recommend this excursion to anyone? I’d say Not Unless You Intend To Climb Mount Fuji—which most visitors come to do. If all you are seeking is a glimpse, then perhaps the height of summer, when cloud cover is rare, might be a better time.

We sank into our bunk beds quite gratefully at the end of the day and looked forward to a relaxed start tomorrow as we make our way to Tokyo—and perhaps a better sighting of Fuji Yama.

Until then, sayonara

Zen Garden, Bamboo Grove, Shinto Shrine, Imperial Palace–All in a Hard Day’s Sightseeing Work!

Kyoto, Japan

A Zen Garden, A Bamboo Grove, A Shinto Shrine, An Imperial Palace—All in a Day’s Sightseeing Work!

Not needing to rush out anywhere this morning gave us a chance to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the Dining Hall of the Via Inn Hotel where we re-connected with our friends over fresh bread rolls, salad, fruit and soup. Then, having chalked out a route for our last sightseeing day in Kyoto, off we set, well-sustained for some strenuous walking.

On the Subway to Arashiyama:

In the far north western end of Kyoto is Arashiyama, an area well-frequented by visitors for its interesting nooks and crannies. Having equipped ourselves with a Day Pass for unlimited subway and bus rides, we rode the subway to the last stop and then hopped into a bus (No. 71) to the first stop on our sightseeing agenda for today. It was a long and slow journey through narrow lanes of a modest village but after we crossed a river over a wide concrete bridge, we arrived at the Zen Garden we had travelled far to see.

The Zen Gardens on Tenryuji Temple:

Because we were all temple-d out, we did not spend any time venturing inside the important Zen Temple of Tenryuji; but because its gardens are so famous for their Zen Buddhist minimalism, we decided to spend the 500 yen to take a tour. Known to be among some of the best ‘stroll’ gardens in Japan, these did not disappoint. As we strolled at our leisure on what was another uncomfortably humid day, we took in the multitude of low growing cherry trees (that must be quite spectacular when in blossom), the several low-growing maple trees with their very tiny fine leaves and the dozens of hydrangea bushes that were in full bloom in a variety of vivid colors as they were planted strategically around the ponds and pools and fountains of this magical space.

By this time, we had learned that Japanese gardens are of two types: Dry gardens that represent the Earth—these are recognized with their white sand and pebbles in which geometrical patterns are raked; the second kind are Wet gardens with ponds and pools that represent the Ocean. Tenryuji’s gardens have both and there are also well-shaded areas (as a result of taller, well-established cypress trees) where the ground is covered thickly with moss and ferns. And as you saunter through these narrow lanes bordered with bamboo fences and stone paving, you meander through the traditional ryokan (homes) with their wide dark wooden verandahs that have shoji doors occasionally left open so that you can glimpse the tatami-mat covered floors within. It was very cool, very romantic and we were glad we made the long hike to this part of Kyoto which is nestled at the foot of the mountains that ring the city.

Sauntering in a Bamboo Grove:

At the northern end of the garden is a little wicket gateway that leads to one of the most magical parts of Kyoto—the Arashiyama Bamboo Groves. This is well touted in all the guide books which is why it is so popular. You suddenly find yourselves on a narrow pathway lined with brown colored low bamboo fronds while towering above you and enclosed on both sides of the fence are bamboo trees. The sun filters softly through the lush foliage of the well-formed trees as they softly dapple the forest floor. It makes a perfect location for a long romantic walk and such venues just beg to be photographed—although, as the guide book rightly points out—pictures do not do it justice. Of course, there isn’t very much to do in this part of town—other than gawp in delight at the soft quality of the light that at times is so soft as to be barely there at all. Needless to say, Llew and I took several pictures as the path curved softly at intervals. This is an excursion I would most heartily recommend to anyone visiting Kyoto because I am not sure this sight or this experience can be replicated anywhere else in the world.

On the Bus and Train Again to Fushimi-Inari Taisha:

With not a moment to spare, we retraced our steps back to the Main Kyoto Station on the bus and the subway line in order to catch yet another bus that would take us to our next port of call—the Shinto Shrine of Fushimi-Inari. Now you might wonder why we would make an excursion to yet another temple—but the fact is that in Kyoto it is not the case that when you have seen one temple, you have seen them all. Far from it. While the temples might share similarities of style and design, each one is slightly different in an extraordinary kind of way. And here at Fushimi, the Shinto shrine is world-renowned for its ‘tori’ or vermillion gates in the shape of a giant T that are repeated endlessly so as to create tunnels of tori that fascinate the visitor.

So although the bus ride to the temple on the No. 5 bus was long-drawn out and wearying, it took us to this incredible spot where, once again, we expended a great deal of film in order to capture the superb atmosphere of the place. Fushimi was conceived as a place to celebrate bounty and in keeping with that aim, there are stone sculptures of foxes all over—said to be symbols of plenty. In their mouths they carry stone keys—said to be keys to the city’s granaries. Visitors are so fond of these foxes that they tie little red bibs around their necks.

We spent a good one hour in this lovely spot as we walked under the arched tunnels caused bv the tori that had sutras from Buddhism painted over them in Japanese script. Occasionally, there were dark metal lanterns that swung from the low roof lines—as evening falls, this area must appear truly enchanted as the soft glow of these electric lights meet the century-old romance of the vermillion tunnels.

But, of course, we could not wait to find out what it must look like at dusk for we needed to get to the next spot on our agenda—a Visit to the Imperial Palace of Kyoto.

A Tour of the Imperial Palace of Kyoto:

A few days ago, Llew had obtained a permit pass that would allow me to take a one hour tour of the Imperial Palace which is located in the sprawling Imperial Park in the middle of the city of Kyoto—he had taken it alone a few days ago. Our tour was at 2. 00 pm and we were told to arrive there 20 minutes prior to its commencement.

Grabbing ham and cheese sandwiches form a subway station, we ate our makeshift lunch on a bench in the Imperial Park and then quickly arrived at the start of the tour where our permit slips and passports were checked before entry was permitted.

Our tour began with a film screened in a Waiting Room where we were taken through the paces of our tour. It lasted about ten minutes and then a guide materialized. In heavily accented English and wearing a portable mike, she then led us on a tour of the palace precincts that lie concealed behind extremely heavy, ornamental gates. I have never been on a tour with so many people—there were at least 200 from many different parts of the world. The tour wound its way through the royal structures each of which has an interesting indigenous name and then through the gardens at the back that are created in accordance with the principles of Zen.

Overall, the tour was disappointing as we did not go inside any of the buildings but merely saw them from the outside. The guide explained the Kyoto was the capital of Imperial Japan for a thousand years and saw the lives and times of several emperors—until the capital was moved to Tokyo. Most of the furnishings of the palace have been moved to Tokyo and the buildings, although gorgeous from the outside, are quite empty within. We did have a glimpse into some of the old rooms with their ancient screen paintings of cranes and cherry trees and tigers and, in another room, of men enjoying a garden party. But, except for these minor aspects of history, there was not much that the tour offered. And, I suppose, after a whole week of strenuous sightseeing, we are slightly jaded at this stage. At the very end, she showed us a grove of topiaried pine trees that are deliberately shaped into bonsai-looking specimens by the painstaking pulling away of individual pine needles that simply boggled my mind.

A Badly-Needed Afternoon Nap:

By this time, both Llew and I were exhausted from all the walking and climbing we had accomplished during the day and so we decided to return to our hotel at 4. 00 pm for a quick nap and a spot of tea. And that was exactly what we did. Both of us slept for a good hour after which we brewed some tea in our hotel room. We also figured out what route we needed to take for our train journey to Hiroshima tomorrow morning. By 7 pm, we decided to go out for a ride again to explore the Food Halls of Takashimaya—but by 8.00 pm, the store was closing for the day. We would have an early start tomorrow, so it made sense to get dinner somewhere close by.

Dinner at Ippudo:

Since we had enjoyed the gyoza (dumplings) and ramen noodle soup at Ippudo, we decided to return there tonight and indeed we had a repeat of our meal—except that this time we ordered the spicy soup which was absolutely delicious. Together with the gyoza and Asahi beer, we had a very enjoyable meal and upon finishing it, we lost no time getting back to our hotel.

A hot shower later, we were ready to hit the sack having set the alarm for 5. 30 am so that we can accomplish the long train journey to Hiroshima and the neighboring island of Miyajima at the crack of dawn.

Until then…sayonara.

Strolling Along The Philosopher’s Walk


The Philosopher’s Walk

Buddhist Temple Service at the Crack of Dawn:
Given our unusual sleeping arrangements (on the floor), we slept surprisingly well although I did awake a couple of time during the night, only to fall swiftly back into slumber. But having set our alarms for 5. 30 am, we washed quickly and hurried downstairs for the daily prayer service. As it was a Sunday, Llew and I felt as if we were attending Sunday Mass.

The Main Temple Hall of the Daein-In Monastery is ornate—filled with two dozen lamps that lend it a golden glow. The Main Altar is an elaborate blend of image, flower and fruit offerings, hundreds of sutras concealed in decorative cases. The fragrance of incense wafted all over us. Sharply at 6. 00 am with devotees scattered on their haunches on the floor (there were also chairs at which most of us were seated at the back), the chief priest or monk arrived and the chanting began. I am not sure which sutra was being chanted but it was rather musical in its own way and fairly rhythmical. This continued for an hour in a kind of litany that was akin to the recitation of the Catholic rosary. The faithful were invited at one stage to make their way to the altar as individuals (which most of them did although we remained seated as observers). The hour-long prayer service ended with a fifteen minute sermon by the monk who had welcomed us into the monastery and exactly at 7. 15, it was all over. We were then invited to file around the main temple to take in its many visual aspects from close quarters—which we did—before we left the temple.

Breakfast Time in the Monastery:
While we were at service, the little elves (novice monks again) had been hard at work. They shuffled their way around the premises (I never ever saw them walk normally) and had laid out our breakfast in the Dining Hall—once again in two neat rows facing each other low stools had been arranged with the multiplicity of little china bowls and plates. Once again, Llew had to content himself with kneeling through most of the meal as he simply did not know how to tuck his knees around his feet in a dainty or comfortable fashion.

We ate a small quantity of steamed white rice washed down with miso soup in which floated some strips of nori and bowl of unsweetened green tea. Tofu featured as whole sweetened beans (slightly larger than broad beans or Lima beans) and a small set round cake that floated in a sweet syrup. It was a most unusual breakfast and while I cannot say that it was delicious, I guess you could say I found it edible. However, I have reached the conclusion that this sort of authentic monastic fare is not really my cup of tea. In general, I am finding Japanese cuisine much too insipid and lacking the complex combination of flavors that one finds, for instance, in Thai food with its sweet, sour, hot contrasts. But for the sashimi (raw fish) which is wonderfully delicious, I haven’t really taken to any aspects of Japanese cuisine.

Return to Kyoto:
As the return journey to Kyoto would take us no less than four hours, right after breakfast Llew and I bid goodbye to our colleagues who had decided to stay on, and made our way downhill with two other friends, Vandana and Maggie in tow. The journey was an exact reverse repeat of the previous day—bus, ‘cable car’, long train journey down the mountains to Hashimoto, change of train and ride to Shin-Imamiya, then train to Osaka and train to Kyoto. Because our leader Maggie wished to make a Noh Theatrical performance back in Kyoto at noon, she managed to find us train connections that actually got us into Kyoto at 11. 30 am (about a half hour ahead of schedule).

While the cable car had been interesting and the ride through the mountains was picturesque, the rest of the journey was boring and I should say that there is absolutely nothing about the passing scenery in a Japanese train that is even remotely interesting or pleasing. For most of the time, we passed through suburban sprawl that reminded me very much of the ugliness of Indian suburbs such as Bombay’s with their modern apartment buildings lacking even the slightest element of aesthetics. Even in the rural areas, the cottages and houses are such an ugly cluster of dwellings—had they been in Austria or Switzerland, for instance, the backdrop of the mountains would have only emphasized the cuteness of the dwellings with their pretty colors, chimneys and gardens. I have come to the sad conclusion that except for their formal gardens that are spectacular, the Japanese do not, as a rule, bring aesthetics into their lives. That said, everywhere you go it is spotlessly clean and yet there are few litter bins to be seen. The Japanese, I was told, carry a small plastic bag on their persons—they place their litter in it throughout the day and then take the bag home and get rid of it there! My mind simply cannot grasp such discipline.

Off to Sanjusangendo Temple:
Once we arrived at Kyoto Main Station at 11. 30 am, we were transported straight into the bustle of the city and there were crowds hurrying about everywhere—even worse than New York which at least has a slow start on a Sunday. We used restrooms at the station, then because we were only carrying a few things for our overnight monastic stay, we decided to take the bus to see Sanjusangendo Temple which we had skipped the previous day. It was only a ten minute bus ride from the station and since our hotel would not permit us to check in so early, that was precisely what we did.

Equipped with day passes for the bus network (a steal at 500 yen and easily made up with just two bus journeys), we hopped into a bus. About ten minutes later, we followed the well- marked signs to the entrance to the temple (as a rule, Japanese signage is poor: small, almost always only in Japanese and unobstrusive—so unobstrusive that most times we miss them completely). Very little English is in evidence anywhere. Street signage is only in Japanese, almost no one can speak or understand English—not even the youngest folk we see who supposedly learn it in school—with the result that traveling alone (as we will do for the week ahead) will, no doubt, be much of a challenge despite the fact that we are seasoned solo travelers. We shall see….

At any rate, Sanjusangendo is famed for the multiplicity of its gilded Buddhist deity images called Kannon that stretch out ahead as far as the eye can see. We paid 600 yen each to enter (the most we have paid for entering a temple, so far) and joined a trail of visitors to view the statues. They are truly visually arresting simply because of their number. There are a thousand of them, about 125 made in the 11th century, the rest in the 12th—so they are almost a thousand years old and still in almost perfect condition. In front of them are a series of 28 guardians cast in bronze with glass inserts for eyes that give them a realistic appearance. These are Hindu deities that act as guardians of Buddhist temples. Yes, it was worth seeing this sight although I am not sure the steep cost was justified.

Having said this, I must also add that photography is strictly prohibited and never in my life have I seen as many signs reminding visitors of this as I saw here. Not merely reminders were evident but actual warnings—cameras, they said, would be checked at the end of the trail and, I suppose, would be confiscated if there were any images of the Kannon on them! It is this sort of occurrence that makes me feel very uncomfortable about Buddhism’s commercialism here in Japan. All is geared towards getting visitors to purchase something at every stage—nothing is offered for free. I am not sure exactly how to react to such blatant materialism in a religion whose leader renounced all his worldly possessions to find the way to Enlightenment.

Return to our Hotel:
We took the bus back to our hotel and were caught in the most awful traffic along Kawaramachi and Karasuma which are Kyoto’s main shopping areas with stores ranging from the upscale Takashimaya to the Mom and Pop operations of the Nishiki Food Market. All of Kyoto seemed out doing their buying and the bus simply crawled along on a day that was extraordinarily hot and frightfully humid—not the most comfortable experience in the world. In a bus that only offered standing room, we had an excruciating journey back to our hotel where we placed our bags in the storage area, checked our email (lack of wifi over two days at the monastery found us quickly catching up with the digital world) and then we went out in need of sustenance.

I have to admit, at this stage, that I did something I have never done in any country on any of my travels–I actually sought out a McDonalds because after a week of bland Japanese food, I was ready to sink my teeth into a good burger and ice-cream sundaes. And that was what we had for lunch: chicken burgers and hamburgers and chocolate ice-cream. And for the first time I realized why so many of the participants I had led on tours around the world have ducked into a McDonald’s after a week to gorge themselves on familiar food. Same with Starbucks—perhaps that is why the chain enjoys so much success globally. Miso soup in the morning simply doesn’t cut it when what you want is the steam and fragrance of richly roasted coffee beans and a brew that tastes like nectar of the gods, first thing in the morning!

Back on the Bus to Ginkakuji Temple:
It was time to return on the bus (a journey I was beginning to dread) to explore yet another Must-See Sight—the Silver Pavilion or Ginkakuji Temple which I expected to be a replica of the Golden Pavilion but in Silver. Well, it took us about 45 minutes to get there on the far north eastern side of town practically at the foot of the hills that surround Kyoto. Once again, we lost our way as the announcements on a crowded bus were not conducive to the solo traveler and we overshot our stop. A good fifteen minutes later, I realized we were getting nowhere and on consulting the driver, hopped off to retrace our steps in the opposite direction.

Having lost a good half hour that way, we raced towards the temple which involved another gentle climb up a hill lined with shops lining a narrow lane to enter the complex. There, to my surprise, we spied a two-storied wooden pagoda. It turns out that it was meant to be finished in silver (as a counterpart of the Golden Pavilion at Kinkakuji) but this goal was never accomplished.

Be that as it may, the chief attraction for me, at this venue, were the glorious gardens that were spread out for acres around the Pavilion—both dry (sand) and wet (pond) gardens, they were punctuated with the most incredible moss gardens I have ever seen—they ground resembled green velvet as we walked on superbly landscaped stairs made of large and small stones that went uphill and downhill to present lovely views of the city of Kyoto that sits in the valley. Just for the gardens, it is worth going to see Ginkakuji. I could only image how stunning it must look in the spring when the sakura (cherry trees that the Japanese adore) are in bloom or in the fall when the low slung Japanese maple trees turn red, yellow and orange.

Strolling on the Famous Philosopher’s Walk:
It was time for us to begin one of Kyoto’s most famous walks—from Ginkakuji Temple to Nanzen-Ji Temple. So-called because it follows the daily route of a famed Japanese philosopher, the Philosopher’s Walk follows a very narrow canal that is lined with wild hydrangea bushes in bloom in varied colors and a path set with twin stone trails. It is shaded completely with low cherry trees and must be gorgeous in the spring when they are in blossom. The path is very pretty and is lined with shops and little tea rooms, eateries, bakeries and souvenir stores (but being Sunday, most of them were closed). Still, this forced us to focus on the natural beauty of the trees and their foliage. Occasionally, we passed by smaller temples (a couple of which are reputed to be worth a visit) but since we were hoping to reach Nanzen-Ji before it closed at 5.00 pm, we hurried along at a very fast clip and did indeed meet our goal.

Exploring Nanzen-Ji Temple and Gardens:
Yes, the Philosopher’s Walk is all it is famed to be—pretty and contemplative. But it was an awfully humid day and not at all the kind made for walking. After a mile and half of this sort of pleasure, we were grateful to arrive at the gates of Nanzen-Ji Temple with just fifteen minutes to spare before closing time. Known to be one of the most picturesque Zen temples and surrounded by glorious Zen gardens, Nanzen-Ji is also famed for a particular screen painting on a panel wall: the Tiger Drinking Water. As we did not have the time for it, we contented ourselves with inspecting the gardens that led under a most interesting pink brick aqueduct to a gushing waterfall. The aqueduct, installed in the late 19th century to bring water to the people of the area, funnily enough, is the big attraction for the Japanese who are tickled to see so Western a structure in the midst of a 12th century Asian temple.

As for the temple itself, the two-storied SanMon or Temple Gate is really striking as are the Zen dry sand gardens that surround it. But I have to admit that, by this stage, we were well and truly temple-d out and a little after 5.00 pm, we made our way out of the calming temple precincts to the main road to find a bus stop—surprisingly and to our enormous delight, we found a Japanese man who spoke almost perfect English and did not tell us to tell us to turn “lefto” and “righto” as so many people had done! And so we found the bus stop near the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and rode all the way back to our hotel for a little R&R—another awful journey in a bus packed tighter than a sardine can through horrible halting, stop and go traffic.

Needless to say, we were ready to stretch out on a bed so we gratefully checked into our room and after taking possession of our room key treated ourselves to a badly needed coffee and a granola bar (that I had carried for added sustenance on our trip).

Off for Dinner to Gion:
After I showered and found renewed strength, we hopped into a bus again to ride to Gion in search of Issen Yoshuyu in search of Okinomiyaki (the stuffed Japanese pancake) that we had so enjoyed. It was indeed one of the most delicious things we have eaten in Japan and having proclaimed its virtues to our friends, we were not surprised to find that so many of them had found their way to the same eatery. They left soon enough and we were(but being Sunday, most of them were closed) alone—we enjoyed our dinner and then hopped into the bus going in the opposite direction to return to our hotel.

Our evening ended with one last excursion—a hike a few blocks away to the Kyoto Court Hotel where our new friends Pamela and Albert would be spending the next few days (since it was a cheaper hotel). Pamela had a camera cable (which I had stupidly forgotten to include in my baggage) and had offered to download the pictures in my camera whose memory stick had reached capacity. This little errand was quite easily accomplished and, greatly relieved, we returned to our hotel where an exhausted Llew crawled immediately into bed leaving me to blog until almost midnight.

It had been a full and very tiring day and we were ready to call it a night.

Until tomorrow, Sayonara.

Living the Monastic Life in Kyosan

Kyosan, Japan

Spending a Day in a Buddhist Monastery in Kyosan:
We awoke at the crack of dawn, alarms clocks duly set. Racing through a wash, we went downstairs to the Dining Hall for breakfast—we have come to expect a uniform sameness about the offerings each day—and then set off at 8.00 am exactly for the walk to the subway station that got us to Kyoto Main Station. About 15 of us had signed up to spend a day and a night in a Buddhist Monastery in the mountains of Kyosan, about 850 meters above sea level. It promised to be the experience of a lifetime and I was both excited and unsure about what to expect.

A Long Journey into the Mountains:
It turned out to be the journey of a lifetime! To get there, we had to change several trains—from Kyoto Main Station to Osaka Main Station. From Osaka, we took a Japan Rail train to a place called Shin-Inamiya where we changed trains again. This one took us up the most verdant mountains clad thickly with towering Japanese cedars and bamboo groves. The air grew misty as we climbed higher and higher until we arrived at Okonuin where we alighted from the train and transferred into what is called a ‘cable car’, but which, in point of fact, is a funicular train that went still higher up the mountain in a heart-stoppingly steep incline. We arrived at Okonuin Bus Station in about ten minutes and then boarded a bus that took us to our monastery—in total, a convoluted journey of four hours. It was about 12 noon when we arrived in Koyasan together with hordes of Japanese pilgrims and weekenders for Koyasan is a popular hill resort among the locals of Osaka and Kyoto and is often used as a retreat from urban stress.

Checking Into Daein-In Monastery:
The stroll along the winding mountain road leading to our monastery took us past little shops selling strange items: tasteless snacks, bottles of sake, cheap souvenirs. But in a few minutes, we were entering the distinctive monastic gates of a religious establishment and were met by a monk who in extremely halting English conveyed the essential information to us: Shoes had to be removed at the entrance and a pair of slip-ons had to be, well…slipped on! These were to be our footwear during our entire stay there; dinner was at 6 pm (we were told to assemble in the Dining Hall no later than 5.55pm); baths were only to be had in the evening (from 4. 30 till 9.00 pm only) in the Communal Bath (separated by gender) at the end of the hallway—we would learn the protocol that governed the taking of baths later in the day; main gates closed by 7. 00 pm—if you needed to stay out later, you would need to use a small side entrance. Well, that was it really.

It took us only a few minutes to realize that we were in a traditional Japanese ryokan (home) complete with sliding shoji screen doors, painted wall panels, tatami mats underfoot. We were shown up to our rooms after keys were handed over: some of us had rooms on the ground floor that opened out into the most adorable rock and water garden (had we the time to spend in it, I’d have been jealous); the rest of us had rooms up one flight of stairs—we had views of the roof tops of the monastery and of the forest-draped mountains of Kyosan. Equally stirring, equally idyllic. Llew and I entered out room tentatively. We saw a low-slung polished wooden table, twin cushions on the floor on either side of it. On the table were pages from the Buddhist sutras complete with calligraphy pens (we were expected to spend some time practicing our sutra-copying skills). Painted screens concealed cupboards that held our bedding—mattresses and comforters (but these would be made up later). There was a large wooden box on the table—inside it was a china kettle and twin cups and a box of green tea leaves together with an electric kettle for boiling water. And wonder of wonders—in this serene, monastic place, there was a TV (Llew was delighted to be able to keep up with the FIFA 2014 games). No, there was no attached bathroom—we had to walk to the end of the corridor to the toilets and basins and baths (as described earlier) were one floor downstairs.

Lunch in a Small Cafe:
There wasn’t much time to lose as most of Japan’s temples close their doors by 5 pm. Our long journey had caused hunger pangs and the mountain air contributed to making us feel as if we could devour a horse. Maggie, our tour leader, called Lunch Time which we decided to spend in the main town. Off we went to find a suitable spot and ended up in a little place called Maru Man where Llew chose the Katsu Rice Curry and ended up with a most delicious meal (I have to say that the curry was better than some we’ve eaten in India, if you can believe it!) and the breaded pork cutlet that accompanied it was equally good. I chose the Soba Noodles with Chicken and Leeks and after doctoring it with soya sauce and chilli powder had a fairly good meal—the soba noodles made with buckwheat were very healthy and I was sure I was gaining in nutrition what I might have lost out in taste. Still, it was a good economical meal washed down with Japan’s Asahi beer. Not a bad lunch at all.

Temple-Trotting Once Again:
Koyasan is all about temples. It derived its importance as a pilgrimage center from the fact that an important Buddhist monk from China called Kobo Daishi—popularly known as Kukai—made his way to Japan’s remote mountainous settlement of Koyasan where he initiated a new sect of Buddhism that is one of Japan’s most practiced today. We saw dozens of pilgrims wearing the traditional robes of their sects all over the town as they traipsed from one temple to the next achieving the stamps of the sites.

Out first stop was Kobo…where Kukai established the headquarters of his sect. Apart from the architectural eminence of the building that is traditional in the way I’ve come to recognize in this part of the world, it contained some really beautiful painted screens in the traditional Japanese style dwellings that comprise the complex as well as the largest rock garden in the country. The garden was of special interest to me and as I walked along the covered wooden corridors that link the separate houses together, I was struck by the Zen quietness of these dry gardens with their large dark rocks that stand in quiet contrast to the tiny white pebbles that surround them. These pebbles are regularly raked in decorative patterns around the rocks and have come to gain their uniqueness in this aesthetic. These gardens are punctuated by the occasional Japanese maple tree that grows very close to the ground or the pine trees that are trimmed, I am told, pine needle by pine needle, in order to achieve the topiaried effect that makes them so distinctively Japanese. In a room at the far end of the complex, green tea was being distributed with a crisp wafer biscuit and it made a welcome spot to rest out feet as we listened to a sermon in Japanese delivered by a monk.

Unfortunately, rain that had threatened throughout our exploration of the complex, came down rather heavily at this point, but I have to say that it added its own freshness to the Alpine landscape and caused mist to hang upon the highest branches of the cedars. Truly, it was beautiful and had the effect of calming one’s mind in the midst of so much holiness.

On to the Mandala Temples:
By then it was close to 3. 30 pm and we were keen to see Koyasan’s hightlights. Maggie informed us that just across the street, along a narrow pathway were the famed Mandala Temples that were spectacular and not-to-be-missed. So off we trooped in the direction of this rich complex as the rain petered off to a slight misty drizzle. And then we were in the midst of another series of Buddhist stupa-like structures that conceal some of the most stirring sights in Koyasan. In one of them we saw a towering gilded statue of the Medicine Buddha flanked by four deities and sixteen Bodhisatavas painted on vermillion pillars. The overall effect was stunning as gilding and incense engaged our senses of sight and smell. Meanwhile, sound was delivered by pilgrims who sat on their haunches close to the altar and chanted a number of sutras that added to the atmospheric feeling of devotion. It was a wondrous sight.

Across the stupa was the Kondo, another building with a statue of the Medicine Buddha concealed in a vast black cupboard. At the back was a mural depicting the Enlightenment of the Buddha. Here too paintings of Kobo Daishi on the wall made for a visual feast that caused us to marvel at the industry and talent of the devotees over the ages. These buildings are several centuries old and are National Treasures (protected monuments) in Japan. Yes, unlike so many of the Cathedrals and churches we have seen all over Europe, they are not just museum-pieces—these are real, vigorous sites of communal worship and personal devotion. Faith is alive and kicking in these spots where the propagation of religious fervor is a priority. So while tourists—like us–might come to gawp at the artistic achievement of these creators, we are also moved by the sights of hundreds of people participating in the rituals of individual and communal prayer and it is a very moving sight indeed.

Off for a Monastic Dinner:
It was almost 5 pm when we finished with these highlights of Koyasan and it was time to partake of the monastic life that we had traveled a long way to experience. So we picked our steps back to our monastery and returned to our rooms to freshen up before assembling for dinner in the communal dining room. Llew was not looking forward to the meal as he finds sitting cross legged on the floor a particular challenge. Our food was laid out in two neat rows as we sat opposite each other across the room. Low stools carried a multitude of little china bowls and plates each of which carried a tantalizing morsel that none of us could identify! Needless to say, it was strictly vegetarian. I mean some items were easy to name: clear miso soup with a few soba noodles and soy pellets floating it in; another cloudy soup seemingly made with a coconut milk base and filled with glass noodles and other tasty morsels—it was easily the most delicious thing I had at the monastery and was made more interesting by the fact that the monk came and lit a little stove under each of our bowls which caused the soup to boil aggressively in front of our astonished eyes; tofu in varied preparations and of varied consistency (sometimes custard-y and at other times firmer); tempura that was light-as-air; steamed squash and crisp beans; the mandatory bowl of steamed white rice (I have not seen brown rice anywhere in Japan); and for dessert… a wedge of fresh pineapple beautifully trimmed and cut. Dealing with chop sticks made the large meal seem interminable to us. Still, it was a wondrous and very tasty experience as meals go and one I am not likely to forget in a hurry.

Ritual Bathing at Communal Baths:
Then came one of the most fascinating aspects of the monastic life—the communal bath! I wasn’t at all sure this was something I could quite handle especially when I discovered that I would need to shower in a large showering hall with no curtains separating one bather from the next and then, stark naked, would need to descend into a vast communal hot bath. Never in my life have I ever done such a thing: even when we have taken communal baths in hot springs (as in Budapest and in the Canadian Rockies at Banff) it has always been with our bathing suits on. To bathe in the company of other women without a stitch was not my idea of relaxation and I have to say I almost backed out of the deal. But then I said to myself that I might as well have the full authentic experience because that was what I had come to enjoy.

And so, clad in the yutaka (Japanese sleeping robe that was provided in our rooms) with a heavy sash, Llew and I made our way to the baths—he to the Men’s Baths and I to the Ladies’. I found that one of my colleagues had beaten me to it and it was she who explained the protocol to me. I had to leave my slippers and my robe in the locker and enter the showering area sans clothing. There, I was to use the soap that was provided and the tiny white towel that was no larger than a small handkerchief (I could use as many of these as I needed!). When I had washed and soaped and cleaned my body thoroughly, I could step into the bath that was steaming gently.

Well, I went through the paces very tentatively being filled with inhibitions about my body and its appearance. But as I soaped myself with my back turned to the other bathers, I somehow found my self-consciousness flow away with the soapy water. A few minutes later, I was slipping into the bath and chatting away with my colleague who was so relaxed that her calmness communicated itself to me. And in seconds, I felt completely comfortable. A few minutes later, more and more of my new friends entered the baths and went through the steps and as each of them entered the space, I felt myself relax more so that, by the end of ten minutes, I had lost all consciousness of my physicality and was attuned only to the serenity of the warm water on my body and the softly lapping sense of waves as they washed all around me. Truly, it was heavenly and I would have stayed there forever, were it not for the fact that the hot water causes dehydration and I began to feel a trifle weak. It was time to drink some water and dry off.

I’m not sure I am interpreting this correctly but I believe there must be some reason for this communal washing. It might have something to do with releasing the consciousness of body image that is so central to our Western mindsets and entering into a new consciousness in which one is fully accepting of the body one is given and indeed becomes contented with me, no matter its shape or size, or color. As far as I know, the quest of the Buddha as he sought Nirvana or Enlightenment, was to try to find the way to liberate human beings from passions and possessions. And perhaps, I believe, from inhibitions or from being judgmental. I think that in releasing my self-consciousness and accepting my body and my physicality for what it is, I achieved some understanding of the calming serenity of Buddhism.

Llew, when he returned to our room, described the exact same sensation in the Men’s Baths—the sense of feeling anxious in the beginning about sharing so private an activity with so many strangers that gave way so gently to complete lack of self-consciousness. At any rate, we were ready to try a hand at practicing the writing of the sutras and of sipping some green tea quietly in our room where we found the beds had miraculously been made up on the floor by silent elves (read novice monks in training) who left us feeling as if we should slip right under the covers. Needless to say, we slept immediately knowing that we were to awake at 5. 30 am for the 6. 00 am temple service in which we were keen to participate as observers.

It had been a most unusual day filled with some of the most unusual experiences we had ever had. But we were glad we had opted to experience these unique aspects of Japanese Buddhist culture first-hand in a real Buddhist monastery. It is not an experience that can be repeated or replicated anywhere else.

Until tomorrow, sayonara

More Temples Today: Kiyomizu-dera and Chion-In Temple

Kyoto, Japan

Hard to believe that a whole week has passed since we arrived in Kyoto to start attending lectures and discussions on Medieval and Pre-Modern Japan. This morning, when we sat down to breakfast with our colleagues, it felt as if we had known each other forever. Academic conferences have a tendency to that do!

At any rate, after consuming the typical Japanese breakfast of rice cakes flavored with nori (which I have been avoiding at breakfast as it is inevitably offered at lunch), assorted bread rolls with marmalade and butter, salad, fresh fruit and soup (yes, I have developed quite a liking for soup in the morning!), most of us were ready to leave the hotel, hop on to the subway and ride to Otani University when our lectures are held.

Listening to Prof. Michael Watson:
Our featured speaker today was Prof. Michael Watson, an Oxbridge-educated British scholar who teaches at a university in Yokohama and has been living in Japan for the past 34 years. Apart from his appearance, he appeared to me to be more Japanese than Emperor Akihito himself! Needless to say, he speaks fluent Japanese and is an authority on Tale of the Heike which is his specialty (among a string of other interests) and it was upon this topic that he spoke this morning. Somehow, in the space of a little over two hours, he managed to present a summary of the entire epic work comprising 12 books and an Epilogue which he brought alive with slides depicting the most marvelous pictorial representations of the story, snippets of music (he even occasionally burst into song himself!) and, often, as most of us professors do, spoke to himself! He was just a delightful presence in the classroom and I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation. Clearly, his knowledge of all aspects of Japanese medieval life is formidable and he was able to convey his love for this material with such passion as to inspire profound interest in his audience as well. I am determined now to attempt to read the work myself (as paucity of time did not make it possible for me to read it before I arrived in Japan).

Bento Box Lunch at Otani University:
The now familiar Bento Box lunch arrived as did Llew—he had spent the morning exploring the Imperial Palace and taking the hour-long guided tour that began there at 10.00 am. He conveyed to me the opinion that the tour was well-guided and certainly well worth taking and as I had requested him to procure a permission pass for me to take the same tour on Monday, I was quite pleased indeed when he produced a pass for me.

We ate our lunches together—fried chicken, rice cakes, picked vegetables, sweet cakes made with azuki (red bean) paste which are delicious and have a very interesting glutinous consistency as well. Discussion involving a round-up of all we had studied continued during the lunch-time breakout session, but then it was time for us to move on to the last section of our program: the afternoon excursion. Various choices were offered to the participants including a hike all the way to the north of the city to a very rural area called Ohara, an examination of the ateliers and studios of textile craftsmen in the city, a tour of three famed Buddhist temples in the east of the city and finally, an opportunity to explore Kyoto alone. Llew and I chose to join Fay who was leading the tour of the three Buddhist temples and before too long, off we went.

Getting Separated from our Group:
We rode the subway together from the Otani University subway stop at Kitoaji Street to the Main Kyoto Rail Station at which point we became separated from our group when Llew went out to purchase a Day Pass for the bus as we had run out of most of the money on our Pay As You Go subway cards. But it wasn’t much of a problem as we were easily able to figure out our route ourselves, Furthermore, we realized that most of the temples close by 4. 30 or 5.00 pm, which would probably not leave us enough time to see three of them.

Off to Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto’s Buddhist Highlight:
Llew and I, therefore, hopped on to a bus that took us directly to the second temple: Kiyomizu-dera (instead of getting us to Sanjusangendo Temple). Kiyomizu-dera is not just a famed Buddhist temple and, therefore, a great religious and tourist site but is also a fine lookout point in that it offers stunning views of the city of Kyoto. Visitors throng around its verandah which juts out on towering stilts high on a hill underneath which a waterfall cascades down to the bottom. This waterfall is believed to flow with miraculous waters and the faithful can be seen drinking copiously of them at the base of the mountain.

To get to Kiyomizu-dera, we had to hop off a bus and walk (nay, climb) for about twenty minutes. At times, the mountain got steep and we got breathless; but the trudge was made interesting by the vast number of stalls and shops that have mushroomed along the pilgrim path offering every manner of enticement from snacks and sweets to souvenirs. While ascending the mountain, we noticed loads of young and very beautiful Japanese girls fully clad in kimonos and we gathered that they were in the vicinity for a reason. Our guide book soon informed us that there is a shrine at the temple which carries the legend that anyone who passes through two tightly positioned stones with their eyes closed are likely to have success in romance and marriage. This might explain the vast numbers of young giggling girls that we saw participating in the rituals. Apart from this, we noticed a brisk business being carried in the sale of charms—indeed I have to say that I am stunned by the commercial aspects of Buddhism in Japan. Astonishingly, a religion that was founded with the intention of being spread by mendicant monks has become a full-fledged business activity that raises millions. Money changed hands openly around the many temples we have visited in the past few days but at this site, it somehow seemed more pronounced.

This temple was founded in 798 during the Heian Period, but this particular building was constructed in the mid-1600s. Of course, it has been shored up periodically, but it still proclaims its age in an awed manner. We posed for the mandatory pictures on the verandah with the city in the background, then walked along the narrow wooden corridors that cling to the sides of the mountain. In the main hall of the temple, we admired the huge statue of the Buddha and then because we were keen to go on to the Chion-In Temple, we picked our way down the mountain past the never-diminishing crowds to get there. Making inquiries of passers-by, we soon realized that the best way to reach it was on foot.

Exploring Maruyama Park and Choin-In Temple:
Although we had no choice but to hurry forward, the walk between the two temples was perhaps one of the nicest we have taken in Kyoto so far. It took us downhill on broad stone steps past smaller temples with interesting pagoda architecture, wayside statues of the Buddha, neat little Zen gardens and small traditional Japanese ryokans (homes) until we arrived at the entrance to Maruyama Park where a very prettily landscaped Zen garden leads the visitor to an idyllic zone. And then just a few feet ahead, we were at the next Must-Do Site, the Chion-In Temple.

Entrance to Chion-In’s Temple is free of charge but if you wish to visit its extensive and reputedly beautiful gardens, you pay an entry fee of 500 yen. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to linger too long, and so we skipped the garden. But we did want the see the extraordinary temple bell that is the largest in the Buddhist world weighing 74 tonnes. So off we went, past the stunning SanMon, which is the main entrance to the temple and which has particularly interesting architecture—it appears to be almost checkered in a black and off-white pattern and has interesting pagoda-like curled rooflines.

Here too a climb was involved and as we panted up the mountain, we reached the many structures that make up the temple complex which form the headquarters of the Jodo-shu (Pure Land) sect founded by Honen who made this area his base. As time was short, we were able to simply glimpse the huge statue of the Amida Buddha to whom this temple is dedicated but wondered exactly where we would find the great bell that we had come to see.

It was at this point that we found a group of young monks working hard to polish a wooden corridor in the Ninnaji Temple style. When we inquired of them, in hesitating English, where we might find the bell, one young monk stepped forward with the most angelic of smiles—he could not have been older than eighteen—and personally led us up yet another mountain to the tallest point on the property, in order to show it to us. We were hugely amused and deeply touched by his gesture of spontaneous kindness and generosity and were even more moved when he offered, through actions and gestures, to take our picture posing by the bell. Needless to say, it was an offer we could not refuse. And so there we were, posed by the colossal bell that is the focus of an annual ritual in which thousands of monks come to this site on pilgrimage and ring the huge gong-like clapper that causes the mountain to resound 74 times at the new year. It was truly a sight to behold and once the sweet monk took his leave of us, we walked all around the great wooden hut that holds it in order to behold it from every angle. Indeed as we hurried down the mountain, we felt privileged to have just made it on time as all of the doors of the various shrines were being shut, one after the other. Chion-In is certainly a temple I would advise any visitor to Kyoto to see.

On the Bus to Takashimaya for Retail Therapy:
We used our map to find our way out of Maruyama Park to the Yasaka Shrine in Gion (which we had had visited a few days ago) and so quite easily found the bus stop that would allow us to board a bus that would take us down Higashiyama all the way to Kawaramachi Shijo (station) where we alighted on a whim.

Spying Takashimaya, Japan’s answer to the USA’s Macy’s or the UK’s Selfridges, I decided to go inside and explore…and how delighted I was to find a sale that urged me to pick up a couple of Japanese silk scarves in the softest of spring colors to give away as gifts. Being light, superbly priced and very classy, I was sure they would make a grand gift. So out I walked with my precious finds.

Exploring Nishiki Food Market:
And then we were walking in the crowded main shopping area to get to Nishiki Food Market which Lonely Planet recommends that every visitor should see. It was with some difficulty that we found it but when we did, we were struck by the long alley lined on both sides with food shops selling a variety of strange items most of which were unrecognizable to us. Although we were not tempted to buy anything, it was a great dash of local color added to our rambling and we enjoyed it immensely.

By this time, our temple exploration, the heights we had climbed on foot and the awful humidity of the day had taken their toll on us and we turned to McDonald’s to pick up chocolate ice-cream sundaes to cool off before we found our way to our hotel. There, a long chat with my brother Roger who happened to be in the US through Viber and a short nap followed by a hot shower revitalized us and we were ready for the next item on our agenda.

Partaking of Keiseki–Japan’s Banquet Experience:
Part of the joy of dining in Japan is partaking of a long and elaborate meal called Keiseki and this evening, our organizers, the Japan Studies Association, led us to San-Suzi, a tiny eatery on a side street very close to our hotel.

As soon as we trooped inside, we were instructed to take off our shoes: ah, I thought, this is going to be one of those traditional Japanese restaurants where you sit on the floor (a not too exciting thought considering that it has been a while since we have assumed any yogic asanas!). As it turned out, the restaurant had those sunken tables that allow you to sit low down with feet dangling into a pit—about ten of us sat at each table, our party occupying three tables in a private room. Now Americans are known to be loud talkers—so you can imagine how the volume in that room rose to such deafening decibels as to be quite unpleasant indeed.

Still, we stopped focusing on the sound and turned towards smell and taste as soon as we beheld the feast spread out before us. For appetizers were already placed at each setting: a variety of sushi (vinagered fish with rice) and sashimi (raw fish) greeted us and as we tucked in, we realized how fresh and delicious it was. This was only the start of a string of dishes that were served to each of us in individual servings (as opposed to the family style meal we had consumed a few days ago in Living Bar). And so we went through noodle soup with fresh fish in a clear broth, a whole roasted sardine served with green tea flavored vinegar, roasted eggplant with roast Kobe beef topping it (melt in the mouth tender), a plate of tempura featuring fresh vegetables and a whole tiger prawn, a bowl of brown rice, a container of miso soup and finally a plate of fresh melon and a red bean paste cake—everything was uniformly good but the fish was the star of the show. Needless to say, we savored every morsel.

During dinner, thank-you speeches were made and gifts were exchanged and all housekeeping matters were settled—it was time to say how sad we were to bid goodbye to the nice professors we had met during the week. They had shared their knowledge and their passion for their scholarly endeavors so generously with us that we felt sorry to bid them goodbye.

But as all good things must come to an end, our workshop on Medieval and pre-Modern Japan has ended—at least the formal lectures and discussions are over. We now await the crowning experience: a visit to the Buddhist monastery of Mount Koya-San which we will undertake tomorrow…but I shall let you know all about that then.

Meanwhile, sayonara from Kyoto.