Saturday, November 22, 2008

In Japan, Part 3

October 30, 2008:

To Koyasan.

In the morning, we're escorted to the proper ticket purchase point in Osaka Station by not one but two helpful Swissotel staff members. After picking up our admissions we head over to the terminal for our train to Koyasan.

The Station holds a similar feel to London Station, with its open spaces and daylight filtering in over the metal framework that spider-webs the train gates. A lone, dilapidated pigeon lopes near us. One corner of his beak looks crusted with calcification, and in place of his right foot is an equally-calcified stub. He's charming as hell in his scruffy way, and soon he's lured several scraps of pastry from Rita and I.

The train arrives, and we're off to Koyasan. The journey offers the same humble-but-palpable pleasures as the Tokyo-to-Kyoto ride: More birds'-eye views of some of Japan's non-touristy quadrants flit by, but this time the sardine-packed suburbs gradually give way to much more rural and placid areas.

All of the surrounding terrain grows more lush, green, and panoramic with the speed of a time-lapse sequence from a wildlife documentary as we get nearer to Mt. Koya and Koyasan. At various points in the train's ascent it slows to a near-halt, brakes squealing as it traverses corners that open up spectacular vistas of verdant trees and plant life. The area bears some resemblance to the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest (give or take appearances by bamboo and other exotic flora/fauna).

Once the train reaches the end of the line we take a cablecar up to Koyasan proper, ascending past carpets of bamboo, conifers, and ferns. We're just two of a pretty large mob of tourists (mostly Japanese) at the top, and Rita and I maneuver our way into the bus that's to take us to our lodgings. Between the absurdly-tight seats and our bloated carry-along luggage, we're so crammed into the coach that laughing at the absurdity of the situation imperils our ability to breathe.

Koyasan is one of Japan's most religiously significant locales. It's a center of Shingon Buddhism, a sect of the religion introduced circa 805 AD by reformist monk Kobo Daishi. Over a hundred monasteries dot the Koyasan area. One of them is Shojoshin-in, the monastery that will house us overnight.

We arrive at Shojoshin-in early in the afternoon. It's along a quieter stretch of the main road that remains tranquil despite the tour groups that occasionally pop in to flood the well-stocked gift shop across the street. We visit the aforementioned tourist trap ourselves to admire the rows of knick-knacks, postcards, and toys. My favorite portion turns out to be the food wares--I gleefully sample the many exotic gelatinous snacks stuffed with fruit and bean paste proffered by the clerks, while Rita picks up my slack and souvenir-shops for friends and family.

The monastery itself sits with quiet modesty, its simple wooden exterior surrounded by immaculately-kept grounds and gardens. Most of the lodgings for tourists are communal housing, with shared houses and baths. Rita and I presume this to be our arrangement, but we luck out and our request for the hanare (the one private guest residence just outside the main monastery) is successful. It's a beautiful traditional-style Japanese home, all sliding paper screens exquisitely filligreed with traditional mythological and Buddhist imagery. It's sparely but tastefully furnished, with a single table for eating/tea and a futon for slumber. The hanare includes western toilets (a profound relief to Rita, who was rightfully shuddering at the notion of a traditional squat toilet) but has no central heating (space heaters fill in fairly well).

The monks who tend to our needs feed all of us an all-vegetarian dinner that evening in the main dining room. The meal is, unequivocally, the most delicious food we are to have for the entire trip. As Rita eloquently states, if all veggie cuisine is this good, meat-eaters'd never go back to carnivorous dining.
The gardens surrounding our hanare are gorgeous, and best of all, we're just a few hundred feet from the Koyasan graveyards. The Graveyards house some 200,000 graves, and in striking contrast to the often-dour and sad final resting places of the west, these graveyards envelop one in a contented serenity. Perhaps it's because Buddhism's centered awareness of nature compliments Japan's other principal religion (the nature-worship faith of Shinto) with grace and acceptance. Huge trees shade a seeming infinity of tombstones, stone gates, Buddhist effigies, and statuary. For some 1,200 years nature has been crafting abstract masterworks over the surfaces of these markers in the vivid greens, oranges, and browns of the moss and the ambient plant life. The groundskeepers of these massive cemeteries keep the surrounding pathways immaculate, but rather than scrape away or clean up the statuary and markers, the plants, mosses, and lichens are allowed to become one with the man-made--to often mystical effect. We spend over two-and-a-half hours leisurely wandering through the graveyard, all without reaching the end.

The Graveyards are one of the most 'idiot-proof' tourist attractions imaginable, meaning that I could probably send my mom in blindfolded with a disposable camera and she'd come out with amazing photographs. This place is that kind of magical. The photographs (which, incidentally, are copyrighted by us and should not be used without permission, Friends and Neighbors!) should bear that out. Pictures are worth a thousand words, so I hope the next several are worth a few million, at least.

Postscript: The evening is relaxing, beautiful, and chilly. We take a turn in the graveyard after dark--Rita dilligently films while I tell an improvised ghost story. We return to the hanare, and before turning in for the night I decide to wander out to the graveyards alone, journal in hand:

"I am in the graveyard, alone...It is alternately tranquil and unnerving. I am at a fully-lit crossroads: There is darkness--infinite darkness--just beyond the well-groomed, well-lit pathway. The figures, markers, and stones that were so placid during the day are now shaded by the strange magic that the presence and the chill of the night induce. No cars are driving along the nearby road. All is silent: Indeed, the scrawling and scratching of my pen against paper sounds deafening amidst the silence. Tiny flies swarm 'round the lamp silently. I think I shall venture forward, just a bit more..."

I do indeed walk further down, to a darker point on the path, largely to face my own fear. How often, after all, does one get such a chance to immerse ones' self in something so atmospheric and magical? Leaning against a lightpost in the dark, I gaze up into the multiple tiers of graves and memorials as they dissolve into the surrounding blackness. After a few minutes of steeping in the atmosphere I rush back to the hanare, and I join Rita for several hours of restful slumber.

Tomorrow morning, we will be granted a special window into a ceremony oft-repeated here over the last thousand years...

Monday, November 17, 2008

Travels in Japan, Part 2

October 29, 2008:

Morning in Tokyo is lovely and clement (probably mid-sixties), but there's little time to enjoy it. Today's trajectory will take us via Japan Rail to Kyoto. Then later tonight we journey to Osaka to stay the night. The following morning, we travel from Osaka to Koya, and to the remote hamlet of Koyasan: The latter will be (we hope) one of the trip's highlights.

The train trip from Tokyo to Kyoto takes about two hours. It encapsulates one of the things I love most about traveling--namely, getting a glimpse (however fleeting) of the routine daily life in a foreign country. Beyond the cosmopolitan shimmer of Tokyo, Japanese suburbs zip by. Tight clusters of apartments and factories break up patches of lush green trees and rice paddies: Surprisingly, in such a densely-populated land there are still some wide-open spaces.

Our first big salvo of sensory overload hits us not in Tokyo but in Kyoto. Kyoto Station is a massive modern bivouac, honeycombed with multiple shops and restaurants as well as masses of boarding gates and Bullet Trains. Just when the shiny and futuristic architecture starts to resemble a typical western metropolitan train station too strongly, some distinctively Japanese quirk surfaces—Mighty Atom (better known to stateside nerds as Astro Boy) greets us at the entrance of the Station, and several signs brim with the wonderfully skewed English that’s part and parcel of so much Japanese advertising. When we arrive, the Station's stuffed to capacity with swarms of commuters, shoppers, and tourists. Our first destination--the Kyoto Tourist Office--allegedly resides on the ninth floor of Isetan, a department store in the middle of the station. Before hitting the Station interior, we explore the surrounding area a bit. Firefighters run through drills at the Kyoto Fire Station, and they're surrounded by yet more memorable signage.

An adorable little cartoon girl in an oversized hat, meantime, adorns the mail box at the Kyoto Post Office. She's lots more fun than that fuddy-duddy old US eagle. Finding the Tourist Office proves to be an adventure by itself. Rita and I have packed light (not for naught has the missus earned the nickname of Consolidata), but the shoebox-sized elevators (and the Ben-Hur-length waiting times for them) induce us to lug all of our bags awkwardly through the various levels of the store in search of this mythic location. We stick out among the flawless-looking upscale shoppers like scraggly sore toes. After a Spinal Tap-style series of meandering twists through boutique showrooms, escalators, and isolated corridors we find the Tourist Information Office and obtain the information we need (directions to the Hotel New Myako, where we'll join an evening tour group).Our search for a coin locker large enough for our bags extends the Stranger-in-a-Strange-Land thrills. Both of us are dressed like schlubby tourists in jeans and t-shirts when we hit Kyoto Station, and we deem it necessary to change into something a bit more respectable for tonight's festivities (ditching the backpacks and bags for a few hours'll be nice, too). Rita and I find the last super-sized locker in Kyoto Station and guard it like pitbulls, each of us taking shifts as the other runs into the nearby bathrooms to change. Our fevered possessiveness does nothing to save us when we end up accidentally re-locking the locker twice, wasting about 1200 yen (12 bucks American) and cementing our Dumb American Tourist credentials but good.

Things look up when we converge at the Hotel New Myako for what promises to be an exciting evening. At a local restaurant, a maiko (geisha-in-training) will perform traditional dances for us, and then we'll eat a nine-course Japanese meal. A taxi takes us from the New Myako to the restaurant, which is scenically located opposite an impressive Buddhist temple. While waiting for the presentation to begin we explore the area around the (now-closed for the evening) temple.
The commercial and traditional rub against one another readily. Tommy Lee Jones' craggy character-actor mug pimps coffee drinks from a vending machine, and a cartoon statue of a geisha pertly sings the praises of some exotic Japanese snack or other. Amidst all of this pop-culture strangeness, monks nonchalantly traverse the sidewalks, and the ancient wooden structure of the temple looms over the street beatifically.
Several organizations in Japan offer maiko or geiko (geisha) experiences, and it can be expensive to get a glimpse at this ceremony. The one we view is less taxing to our pocketbook than a full-on geiko experience (our maiko is accompanied by a CD instead of live musicians), but neither of us feels short-changed in any way. Our maiko's the real deal--a 19-year old carrying on the centuries-old tradition--and she's graceful and beautiful. Only when she pauses between dances for a Q-and-A does her unearthly veneer reveal the refreshing universality of a typical smart-alecky teen (grown-ups and their goofy questions...).

Next, we dine. Our meal consists of nine courses, all traditional Nihongo fare. I dive into the meal despite my strong aversion to seafood in general, and the food's phenomenal. The cornucopia of flavors--savory miso soup, a tender and flaky mackeral derivation, the vinegared tang of pickled cucumbers, the breaded tempura shrimp and vegetables, the melange of sauces, the volcanic scorch of wasabi--are as carefully orchestrated as the meal's visual presentation. Rita and I are hungry as hell, so we clean our plates with the efficiency of a Whirlpool dishwasher. It all washes down headily with some green tea and warm sake.

The tour company springs for a cab ride back to Kyoto Station. We retrieve our bags and hop the JR to Osaka at about 9pm. A half-hour later, we're in Osaka Station, which is, amazingly, even bigger and more packed than Kyoto. The Swissotel Osaka connects directly to Osaka Station, so once we arrive it's just a quick jog to our lodgings. Then again, with four nicely-stuffed bags slung over our weary shoulders, that quick jog stretches like taffy.

It's a bit of a bummer that we're only staying until the morning. Osaka looks like quite the funhouse: The skyline outside our hotel room window offers more futuristic architecture, cotton candy neon, and strange structures that imply amusement-park fun. Almost directly below our window is a building whose rooftop is dotted with graveyard-shift factory workers--It's like a scene out of Metropolis, only with neon-etched cartoon characters smiling down on the proles.
Once we check in, I run down to the lobby to shoot a quick progress email to our stateside friends while Rita relaxes. Just a few feet away from the Internet Station is a lounge: A dapper forty-something Japanese singer in a pinstripe suit plunks away at the house piano and croons Barry Manilow and Celine Dion hits in magnificently fractured English. The neon and electric light from the Osaka cityscape illuminate the singer from behind. Cigarette smoke does Indian rope trick climbs to the ceiling around him, and the glasses of the half-dozen or so lounge patrons clink away as rounds are tossed down. Sadly, he finishes, the bar closes, and the surreal scene evaporates before I have the chance to go back up to our room and get the camera.

Tomorrow morning we'll pick up and hit the train again, this time for a destination much closer to nature.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

To Another World: Travels in Japan, part 1

A patch of blue makes a cameo against the horizon, tucked precariously between puffed plumes of gray/white clouds and indigo sky. The ensemble reflects placidly upon Lake Washington's surface, and a crisp autumn wind stirs yellow and orange leaves around the pavement outside the house. It's a textbook-beautiful fall afternoon in Seattle. But I miss Japan.

My US store-bought green tea tastes wanly fruity and insubstantial compared to the bitter and earthy Japanese green tea I repeatedly drank during the preceding week-and-a-half. The cold and moist air of the Northwest (literally) pales against the 70-degree cloudless warmth of the Kyoto skyline. And the sleepy suburban neighborhood surroundng me feels positively stale alongside my mind's-eye view of the eerily-tranquil Koyasan graveyards. Any good vacation leaves you feeling good and enriched on some level, but our trek to Japan seeped into me like no other port of call ever has.

I could natter away endlessly about the unique impact that Japan had on me inside, but just telling the story relatively free of garnishment feels a lot more appropriate, so here goes.

October 27, 2008: Rita and I hop our plane at Sea-Tac somewhere around 1pm-ish.

I'm one of those wide-eyed rubes who seldom tires of flying. The view of the earth 'neath from tens of thousands of feet in the air never fails to enchant me.

At about the three-hour mark we're over Alaska. The land's epidermis looks like white veins and cellular corpuscles scattered over infinity. Just beyond the dots and splotches of white, mountain peaks portrude above the ground like spikes on some unearthly-huge organic EKG monitor. The whiteness--threaded by arteries of waterbodies and what look like glaciers--stretches without boundary.

Photos never do this type of view justice. There's no simulating/replicating the multiple layers of cloud cover: Some hover near-membranous in their thinness, others swirl creamily, and still others appear so densely-puffed they look as if you could walk atop them. And when they all stack gradually atop one another, it's hypnotic.

That said, being jammed in a metal tube at 37,000 feet above the earth does wear away at a person physically after ten hours, so touchdown is welcome. We arrive at Narita Airport about 6pm Japan time on October 28 (Japan's sixteen hours ahead of Seattle). Narita shares many traits common with typical urban airports, only it's far neater. Within minutes of our passage through customs I note no less than three different members of airport staff spit-shining various quadrants of the airport. Everything's clean and orderly, an aspect of Japanese culture and living that will surface repeatedly over the next week-plus.

Another aspect of Japan noted early, and often during our stay--The beauty of the people. Nearly every man under the age of 35 looks like a dreamboat J-Pop star; all perfect cheekbones and thick, stylishly-tousled hair. Rita and I immediately begin playing our own exotic version of Slug-Bug, that old travel-standby game: Whenever we see one of these dreamy males in our path, one of us punches the other in the arm and blurts out, "J-Pop!" Yeah, we're strange.

Nearly every woman is likewise luminously beautiful. Each of the various service counters at Narita seems to be staffed by a girl with smooth glowing skin, lustrous black hair, faultless cheekbones, and a smile that lights up the airport more aptly than a warehouse full of flourescent bulbs. And even the Japanese who aren't traditionally handsome or pretty possess faces of wonderful character: Small wonder that all of us Americans and Europeans standing in customs look like squat, pink toads in contrast to the locals who crisscross Narita Airport.

The airport already begins yielding cultural gifts of the strangest sort, including an electrolyte supplement known as Pocari Sweat and a giant, apparently suicidal hot dog slathering himself in ketchup and mustard outside an airport snack bar. The latter demonstrates an element of Japanese culture that will also surface time and again during our stay: The nation's tendency to adorn even the most mundane instructional signs and advertising with buoyantly whimsical, cute cartoon characters.

Rita and I hunt down a cell phone rental booth, grab a phone for international communication (gotta be able to check on the dog while we're away, y'know), and hop on our shuttle for the Grand Prince Akasaka Hotel in Tokyo. The ninety-minute shuttle ride takes place at night, so our view of the environs consists largely of glowing neon signs and structures rendered exotic by the extensive Japanese kanji and hiragana that intermingle with English lettering on the signage. No culture shock yet--Just a bit of local color gently seeping into the pores.

The Grand Prince Akasaka is a huge, state-of-the-art hotel, and the customer service is jaw-dropping in its efficiency and attentiveness. Instead of having our keys thrown at us by the front desk clerk and being left to our own designs (as is frequently the case in non-luxury accommodations in the West), a staff member scoops up our bags, places them on a cart, and personally escorts us to our room.

After ten hours in the air, an hour-and-a-half of shopping for rental phones in Narita Airport, and another 1.5 hours on a shuttle, we're a bit wiped out for too much exploration of the area. Fortunately, there's much to learn and see within the confines of our small but lovely hotel room.
There's quite a learning curve here for even the smartest of westerners, and that learning curve begins with the Japanese toilet. Modern buildings like the Grand Prince have blessedly eschewed traditional squat toilets for more westernized models, but the Nihongo toire includes a heated seat (very nice), bidet, and spray. Rita and I stare at the non-descript throne and analyze it for several minutes like the ape men in 2001: A Space Odyssey scrutinizing that black monolith thing. Necessity dictates that Rita be the first to, um, make full use of the equipment. Ever the resourceful lass, she figures out that the bidet and spray only activate when a human derriere is in contact with the seat, which sadly renders a videotaping of the bidet in action impossible without a major broach in decency, a soaked camera, or both.

I discover very quickly how easy it is to be sucked into the vortex that is Japanese television. Instead of spacing commercials at fifteen-minute intervals a la the US, Japanese advertisements come between programs in large clumps with no fades between spots. In stark contrast to the manufactured cool and pretense rampant in stateside advertising, Japanese commercials all good-naturedly assault the viewer with wild colors, whimsical talking animals, and unrestrained exuberance. They're scarily fun to watch.

Japanese game shows share this absence of restraint and inject a hefty dose of queasy surrealism into the mix. The apex of strangeness: A quiz show in which a celebrity panel is shown a clinically-excruciating photo of a minor physical fault--a mole, liver-spot, or scar--and then asked to guess which of their number actually possesses said deformity. This David Cronenberg-ian deviation of Match Game hypnotizes Rita and I for several minutes before another salvo of genially-sledgehammering commercials breaks the dark spell.

Once we disconnect ourselves from the terebi, I bring up a piece of (birthday) cheesecake for Rita. It's October 28, so according to this land, my lovely wife is 39 years old. We ring in her 39th year by surveying the view of Tokyo from our hotel window. It's as dazzling a skyline as any big city could offer.

We'll be travelling to Kyoto, then Osaka tomorrow; all to visit the most transcendental of sites. More pictures, less jabbering next time, I promise.