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May 30, 2007

Where are we now?

Lantern watching Floating Lantern

Here are some hints: Two women dressed in kimonos watch as thousands of lanterns slide into the Pacific Ocean during a traditional Buddhist memorial service. But it's not Japan. Believe it or not, we're now in Hawaii. L is attending the American Astronomical Society annual meeting and I went along for the ride. We have a hotel room with a gorgeous ocean view, and we got a chance to see this great ceremony on the beach outside our window. The event was sponsored by a Buddhist sect based in Tokyo and featured a taiko drum band. And if that isn't enough of Japan for the Hawaiians, we saw that the Grand Sumo Tournament is coming to Honolulu in June...

A nice story on the event (where I got the photo on the right) is at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

May 25, 2007

Town and Country

Out in nature View of our house

After a few days exploring the Izu Peninsula on their own, M's parents returned to Tokyo. They really got a lot of siteseeing in during the trip. For example, on the way across town from the bullet train station, we checked their luggage into a locker at the train station and walked to the nearby National Institute for Nature Study. The goal was to ease back into Tokyo life from their time in the rural mountain countryside. Originally a noble person's villa and garden, the area has since been replanted with native species and is one of the few islands of unsculpted nature in the city. It's a rare place in Tokyo because they limit the 50 acre parkland to have less than 300 visitors at a time (by contrast, the typical Tokyo subway train holds over 700 people and passes through our train station every two minutes). Wandering the paths through the park, we encountered tons of white moths fluttering about in every direction, and we snapped the photo on the left with tall grass and blooming irises.

My parents spent the rest of their time in Tokyo visiting a few museums, wandering around the sumo district where the spring tournament is taking place, and lounging around their hotel. The fantastic view from their room on the 51st floor even allowed us to see the approximate location of our apartment. The photo on the right gives a bird's eye of our neighborhood, which is considered relatively sparse and spacious by Tokyo standards.

May 23, 2007

Next Stop: Kyoto

Riding in style Invasian of the school children

The next stop on my parents' trip was Kyoto. L had to go back to work, but I was able to stay with them to enjoy Japan's ancient capitals of Kyoto and Nara. We were treated with a festival parade traveling down Kyoto's city street called the Hollyhock festival (left photo). As a spring festival named after a flower, you might think that it would feature beautiful floral arrangements. It did, sort of. All of the flowers were bright, crisp, fresh, and ... plastic. The citizens of Kyoto managed to transcend the natural limits of this festival celebrating the blooming of a local, seasonal flower. We also enjoyed a fantastic display of horse riding where the horses sprinted at full speed down a straight stretch beside a shrine. The horses had to stop when they got to the end (where we were standing), and one of them didn't get that message (it was very exciting and a little scary).

The crowds for the festival may have subsided, but they were quickly replaced by amazing hordes of students (right photo). Apparently a large portion of Japan's school children take history trips to Kyoto and Nara during the weeks that my parents visited. When L and I visited Kyoto around New Years, it was peaceful and quiet, so I was a bit disappointed. The magic of Kyoto, however, shone through because my parents didn't seem phased by the crowds. We thought that we barely managed to squeeze on one bus when an entire class of 5th graders managed to squish in at the next stop, but my parents just saw it as one more component of their "complete" Japanese experience.

We saw the famous temples, took a hike in the trees at my favorite Inari shrine, visited a restored merchant's house in Nara, and had more than our share of raw fish.

See more photos of the festival and other sites by clicking here.

May 22, 2007

Top garden

Bridge over irises Forked lantern obligatory photo

The next stop on our adventure with my parents was the city of Kanazawa on the sea of Japan. It's not one of the more common tourist destinations in Japan (for example, Kyoto has 17 world heritage sites while Kanazawa has none), but it was worth a visit. We learned more about its famous lacquer-ware and other crafts at one of its museums, which mom particularly enjoyed. So much so that we devoted a fraction of our remaining time searching out quality antique and craft stores. She eventually made a purchase that she was happy with. We strolled around to see the houses where samurai once lived, including one of the most beautiful small gardens we've seen in Japan. We took a tour of a Buddhist temple with hidden stairwells and trap doors to repel invaders. It was one of about two dozen temples near the border of the town, which is apparently a strategy for protecting cities at the time (a spiritual wall?). We walked inside a small castle reconstructed in 2001 following the exact plans of the original castle. It featured some excellent views of the surrounding city (a good thing for the castle), but was most interesting because several of the towers were built without 90 degree angles. There was some talk that the weird construction was for earthquake engineering purposes, but the reality is that they don't really know the original motivation. For us, it was barely perceptible but slightly disorienting when we did notice the angles..

The highlight of Kanazawa was visiting what is called one of the "three best gardens in Japan." What distinguishes a top-tier garden from an random jumble of cellulose and water? During our visit to Kenroku-en garden, we learned that there are six qualities embodied by a successful garden. Click on the link below to read more more about these qualities:

  • spaciousness In a country as dense as Japan, you can easily see why feelings of spaciousness would be valued like treasures.
  • antiquity Some of the famous gardens in Japan were laid out so long ago that trees which began as tiny bonsai bushes have grown into stately old men with graceful knotted branches. Many of these ancient giants require nearly every branch to be supported and propped up by tall stakes. While it looks a bit funny, if I make it to 650 years old, I think people will excuse me for walking with a couple of canes...
  • broad views Some gardens do a great job of taking advantage of natural backdrops of forests and mountains to extend the feeling of the garden, and the Japanese call this "borrowed landscape." My mom's favorite gardens are based on this effect.
  • seclusion This is my favorite aspects of Japanese gardens. A good garden can feel like a complete oasis even when it is surrounded by modern skyscrapers (and the case of one garden in Tokyo, immediately adjacent to the Tokyo Dome sports arena and an amusement park with people screaming from a rollercoaster that towers just beyond the garden wall). Similarly, a well done garden can turn a tiny backyard space into a dreamland, and we've seen a number of these type of gardens.
  • water Reflecting ponds, flowing streams, and peaceful waterfalls.
  • artificiality Seriously. One could argue that a garden is by definition an artificial version of nature, but the fact that a good garden should flaunt artificiality surprised us. It's possible that this translation is not precise, but we've definitely noticed that many Japanese like to have their "nature" sculpted and well controlled. We see evidence of this in their river and coastline management (copious use of concrete) and forest management (regulated clear-cutting).

May 21, 2007

Waiting for the bus, Japanese style

Waiting for the bus, 2

There are some things that the Japanese really know how to do right, like waiting for the bus. It is an entirely different experience here than it is in the US. First, you don't have to wait nearly as long because everyone uses public transit to get around. Next, you know the bus will arrive at the stop on time. That's how things work in Japan. Train conductors can lose their jobs if they are more than a few seconds late a couple of times. Finally, the capstone of bus waiting occurs in a few special places where they have strategically placed bus stops near natural hot springs (you may also remember that they have added a similar feature in some airports). You soak your feet in the bubbling spring as you soak in this gorgeous view up into the mountains, all while waiting for your bus! If public transit always worked this way, wouldn't you take the bus?

A mountain getaway to Takayama

Pond View Mossy Roof

We met up with my parents on Friday in the beautiful town of Takayama. It's known for its local crafts, it's thatched roof buildings, and being located at the base of a mountain range so steep that it's known as the Japanese Alps. We had a chance to enjoy a bit of each of these.

My favorite part of the town was what I would call the "Japanese Williamsburg" where you can explore inside typical farmhouses from this mountainous region. The thatched roofs are as much as 1.5 meters thick and can last longer than 50 years. They build them like this to withstand the deep snowfall. Some of the houses were quite large and once housed more than 30 family members. I was interested to find that most of these country houses had durable wood plank floors and a single room with tatami mat flooring that housed the family Buddhist alter, unlike urban houses that are entirely tatami. Since you cook, eat, and sleep on the floor, this makes a big difference (I think we'll stick to the soft tatami floor of our Tokyo apartment). The town even allows you to ring the temple bell [Quicktime Movie, 1.7 MB], which L did with great vigor compared to the meek Japanese women tourists who gave it a gentle tap (you can hear their reaction to her ring in the movie). Of course, we got to enjoy all of this in a gorgeous setting looking out to the snow capped mountains. It really gave a great feel for what it might have been like to live in the Japanese countryside a hundred years ago.

Not content with simply seeing the mountains, we hopped on a bus and rode out to where you can take a ski-lift-like cable car up about 2000 m (6500 feet) in just 7 minutes. The panoramic view [be sure to click on the image above to zoom in and then scroll right to see it all] was breathtaking. Despite the draw of the cable car, we chose this spot because it also had some hiking trails (which are apparently rare on the common Japanese tourist circuit). Even better, the trail map indicated that hikers should wear a bear-bell to frighten away the hungry black bears that roam the forest (which are even rarer than Japanese tourists hiking on unpaved surfaces). We loved getting out. While we didn't see any bears, we did have the chance to play in the snow and catch a glimpse of a cherry tree growing in the wild. I really miss being in the mountains!!

Skim through all our Takayama photos and captions or watch a slideshow of the photos.

Parents visit Tokyo, Take 2

A vegetarian dinner

M's parents are in town again. They enjoyed the raw fish of Tokyo and then went about to explore the Japanese country side. We had time to go with them for some of the journey and we will visit two new cities with them: Takayama (at the base of the "Japanese Alps") and Kanazawa (on the Sea of Japan coast on the north-western side of the island). Stay tuned for more news...

L's parents, in case you are wondering, are next in line and will visit in mid June!

May 20, 2007

On Buddhist Philosophy

One to ponder for the ages:
A Buddhist monk comes up to a hot dog stand and says "Make me one with everything."

The he pays the vendor and asks for change. The vendor replies, "Change comes from within."
(Pilfered from a review of a fun-sounding new book by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein.)

Note: this joke is actually more plausible in Japan, where the local Buddhists have pretty much done away with the whole vegetarian thing.

Follow that shrine!

Everybody cheer! Getting a closer look

Today we were lucky enough to visit what is called one of Tokyo's most exciting festivals, and we have to agree! Normally, the sacred objects of a shrine are kept locked away inside the inner buildings of a shrine. For three long days, however, groups of devotees carry large portable shrines around the streets of a certain neighborhood in Tokyo symbolically bringing the shrine objects to the people.

There are about 100 of these smaller shrines, and they vary from the size of a small American oven to the size of a car. Literally thousands of people take part in carrying the shrines in every different direction from the main shrine in Asakusa. We've read that the groups are sponsored and organized by companies, wealthy families, and especially the yakuza (organized crime in Japan). You can recognize the yakuza by their tatoos (which are otherwise extremely rare in Japan), and we saw at least of few of the people with some rather full tatoos barely visible under their shirts. But it's not just for mobsters, we also saw the cutest group of kids carrying a kid-sized portable shrine.

The groups, who are dressed in matching skimpy uniforms (parental discretion advised) constantly bounce the shrines up and down for good luck while clapping and cheering. See a fun movie of them in action [Quicktime, 2.6 MB]. We followed them as the wound through the narrow streets, and then got a chance to get even closer when they stopped to take a well-deserved break.

This was by far the most lively festivity we've seen yet in Japan!

May 11, 2007

Taiko Drum Museum

L plays the big drum Gourd xylophone

This weekend we had another only-in-Japan adventure. We've hit many of the most important tourist sites in Tokyo, so we're starting to look for those "hidden gems." Today's destination is a drum museum, but during the five minute walk from the nearest train station to the museum, we ran across two other Japanese gems -- the kitchenware district (a whole street lined with stores selling cooking utensils) and an authentic hot spring bath house in the middle of the city. So, we got three for the price of one!

At the drum museum, you are allowed to play almost all of the pieces on display (except for a few precious older drums). We were the only people in the museum at the time, and we had a great time beating on just about every one of the drums in the place. There were percussion instruments from around the world, including the gourd xylophone from southern Africa (right photo), a hollow log from New Guinea, a steel drum from the USA, and the star attraction of a range of Japanese taiko drums (like the biggest one L plays on the left). We felt a little self conscious playing them very gently at first. But by the end, we were having a great time!

After our excitement, we "cooled off" at the local onsen. There, the hot spring water is piped in at near-boiling temperature from a natural well 1700 m beneath Tokyo. The water is affectionately referred to as "tea-colored." Japan is so obsessed with cleanlyness, so it's funny that bathing in water that looks dirty is considered a special treat. But they completely know how to spin things to get around that. The little black specks floating in the water that might gross out some people are said to bring good luck. We'll report more on Japanese bathing practices another time, but we had a fun adventure soaking in the hot tubs during this weekend outing.

May 9, 2007

Doesn't this plastic food look tasty?

Plastic Food Store Plastic Food Medley

Plastic food is a part of every-day life in Japan. You see it outside of many lunchtime restaurant venues, and it's not just in tourist areas. For some reason, Japanese menu writers seem to be incapable of describing things, and menus rarely consist of more than a dish's name. Further, cuisine is so regional that I often find myself asking a Japanese person what a particular menu item consists of and they are not sure themselves. Enter plastic models of food to fulfil this important communication need.

We happened across this store in Tokyo's kitchenware district. It is the place where restaurants go to purchase the plastic food they display. This begs a chicken-or-egg question, "does plastic food match the restaurant's existing presentation, or do chefs adapt their food so that it looks like the plastic sample?" I should note that this question is based on an underlying assumption that the food you get in the restaurant actually looks like the mouthwatering sample. This is without a doubt true. In America, we joke that food never looks like the pictures in advertisements, but Japanese always manage to get it looking just right -- even at places like McDonalds and Dennys! So if the plastic food store dictates the appearance of food, this would produce a universal look for all dishes throughout the entire country. I think there is sufficient empirical evidence to support this theory, as there really is one "correct" way to present a bowl of ramen.

Also worthy of note are the plastic dead fish, complete with buggy eyes. This is considered appetizing among Japanese, and the plastic food is very authentic. This authenticity comes at quite a price. A single plastic sushi roll will set you back about $15, while a bowl of curry rice is easily $75 in plastic form. A sign, written in English for tourists, indicates that the price only includes the plastic food itself and not the bowl in which it sits.

Another adventure in Japan!

May 7, 2007

Crowded shrines and peaceful riverbanks in Nikko

Things have been busy after we returned to Japan. M started a new job (his old one was a 6 month term) with a new, two hour commute. L continues her 1.5 hour commute (in the opposite direction) to take care of her satellite. So, it took a while, but we finally had a chance to get out and see some fun things.

We went on a day trip to Nikko, a town in the mountains about 2 hours from Tokyo that is known for its very ornate shrine and its natural beauty.

Ornate pagoda IMG_0720.JPG

The Japanese aesthetic is typically very simple. One of my favorite parts about their art is their use of white space -- because sometimes empty space is more dramatic and says more than the most intricate and detailed designs. Well, Nikko shatters that idea. They went for ornate -- and by ornate, I mean totally over the top glitz. There are gilded carvings everywhere. No corner was complete without extra layers of beams and columns topped with a colorful carving (picture on right).

Jizo statues The abyss

The site is also a major tourist attraction, and we happened to visit during Golden Week, which is one Japan's two longest vacations (with New Year's being the other). So with all these people, it was incredibly refreshing to stroll along the nearby peaceful river valley at sunset. It's amazing how just a few minutes walk away from the bustle of the main shrine, there is this great site with a river tumbling down smooth volcanic rocks as hundreds of Buddhist statues gaze down upon it.

This is sort of how it works in Japan -- there are certain places that you are supposed to see. Everyone goes to see those places, and Japanese are not afraid of crowds. For example, there was another temple immediately adjacent to Toshogu shrine that was almost equally ornate, but it was empty, quiet, and refreshingly peaceful. I know the same thing happens in the US, but it seems more pronounced here. The basic idea is that Americans idealize the "backroads" and undiscovered sites that they can have all to themselves, while Japanese culture idealizes sharing an important place with everyone else. Americans try to go in the offseason, while Japanese seem unafraid, or even happy to go at the absolute peak of the crowds.

See all our photos from the outing by clicking here.