Sunday, October 13, 2013

Until next time...

To what, for what, for whom does one pray?  On my last day in Japan, I visited the neighborhood shrine, Hikawa Jinja.  These sacred places are everywhere in Japan, though perhaps their sanctity does not speak immediately to many visitors in this secular age.  I count myself among the secular.  Still, Hikawa Jinja brings back childhood memories--walking down the street in the summer to pay a visit amidst the crying cicadas.  The leafy grounds offer respite from the humid heat.  The sun thrusts through the foliage in bright patches.  Memories, I venture, remain sacred.

It seems like there's a lot to pray for, yet I can't help but wonder if I'm asking for too much, or whether I have the right to ask for anything at all, or indeed whether I want to ask something indeterminate (some favor?) of something indeterminate (a higher presence?).  Perhaps that's overcomplicating matters at hand.  I can certainly accept the fact that prayers constitute positive thoughts, and positive thoughts affect the world in positive, often surprisingly concrete ways.

I'm grateful for the past month.  For time, for family, for friends, for much more--for all these things, it's been life in a state of grace.  I suppose I could stay for longer, but the timing feels right.  I'm glad to go back to the US, and I'll be glad when I come back to Japan.

I've uploaded some final photos of Otaru and Tokyo:

Photos of Otaru
> Photos of Tokyo

Visiting Japan: practical notes...

Many friends have expressed an interest in traveling to Japan.  My thoughts: do it!  Japan is very safe and clean, so the only real concern is cost.  Although the standards of living are quite high, there's something for the luxury and budget traveler alike.  It's pretty easy to figure out how to travel in luxury, so I'll write down some observations on budget travel here.


The train is my preferred method of transportation.  Japanese trains are comfortable, clean, reliable, and provide excellent views.  The Japan Railway (JR) has an extensive network and the country is small enough that it's a reasonable ride to most destinations.  Although the fare is quite expensive, foreign tourists can take advantage of 7, 14, and 21 day unlimited JR passes.  I went to a travel agency in New York and bought a 14-day unlimited JR pass for about $450.  I've recouped the cost many times over.

Food and Dining

Japan offers myriad pricey delicacies to sample, but the food culture is so rich that the budget traveller won't feel left out.  Even in Tokyo, it's easy to eat well at a local restaurant for $10 at lunch, $15 at dinner.  Japanese fast food is also quite good: $3 or $4 buys a bowl of udon or soba noodles, for example, or a rice bowl with beef.  When traveling, I also frequent the basements of department stores near train stations, where prepared foods are available to go.  The lunch I brought on to the train one day: assorted tempura over rice, a small side of meatballs, some gyoza, and a bottle of tea.  Grand total: $10.


Hotels in Japan are good value compared to other developed countries.  As I've traveled to the northeast in the past week, I've paid between $38 and $50 a night for a spotless room with a private bathroom and fast WiFi.  The hotels have all been within a short walking distance of a major JR station.  The best deals tend to be available online, via travel portals like Rakuten or  Rooms in major cities like Tokyo will naturally be a bit more expensive, but still much cheaper than comparable cities in the US or Europe.  In Sapporo, I paid an average of $100 a night for spacious rooms only a few steps away from the station with lovely views of the city.

Monday, October 7, 2013


The Seikan tunnel between Honshu (main island) and Hokkaido (northern island) spans 53.85km, of which 23.3km lies under the sea.  At the lowest point, the ceiling of the tunnel is 240m under the sea, with water depth of 140m and overhead earth thickness of 100m. 

The remoteness of Hokkaido is apparent when emerging from the tunnel -- the greenery grows so tall alongside the tracks that there's barely any view for long stretches.  It's a long ride from Tokyo, but time passes quickly on pleasant train rides.  Among other things, I've been reading All Things Shining.   Although it's a bit glossy at times, the phenomenological reading of religious history is fascinating.  I wish I'd read it as an undergraduate!

Hakodate is like a cross between Yokohama and San Francisco: East meets West in a hilly city with an old-fashioned tram, a mountain, a cable car, a lovely bay...

> Photos from Hakodate

It's the perfect place to visit for a day or two.  The seafood is caught the same day, the tram is smily, and there's blue beer made with glacial ice:

Sunday, October 6, 2013


I've processed some photos from the Tohoku region (the northeast of Japan).  In a country with an aging population, the demographics are especially striking in the Tohoku.  I imagine this is true of more rural places in general: most of the people I encounter on the streets are one or two generations older.  There are teenage students, too, but very few people my age.  How strange!

> Photos from Tohoku

Kakunodate is an old town in the Akita prefecture with a well-preserved "samurai district", where former samurai residences are maintained and open to the public.  It's one of several towns in Japan known as "little Kyoto"--physical fragments of history that have survived the trials of time and the bombings of WWII.

From Kakunodate, there's a local train that runs northwards through rural Akita.  One track, one car per train; by my estimate there are no more than four trains on the tracks at any given time.  Most stations consist of little more than a shed, surrounded by trees and mountains and the occasional river.  I imagine the sights are splendid when the leaves turn color later in the fall.  Meanwhile, I encountered another bear!  He's a local station chief:

Traveling alone is care-free and simple.  There's no better way to see new sights and ruminate.  When I recall extended trips taken with friends, though, the emotional register of the memories differ.  Of course, choosing the right companion is critical; but even a simple meal is more enjoyable when shared.  I think of the famous Christopher McCandless quote from Into the Wild: "happiness only real when shared", which I believe was stated in the context of the line from Dr. Zhivago: "unshared happiness is not happiness".

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Morioka to Akita

I stopped in Morioka for a bowl of noodles.  The city is apparently known for all sorts of noodles: soba, reimen (a sort of cold ramen noodle dish), and ja-ja-men (a take on a Manchurian noodle dish).  My lunch was a bowl of "onion soba" -- a heap of bonito flakes and thinly sliced onion with a light dressing and a little dashi broth on top of cold soba noddles.  Surprising and delicious (surprisingly delicious?).

Morioka was otherwise an unremarkable place, with the small-city requisite shopping arcade, park, and shrine in the center of town.  I call it a city arbitrarily (e.g. as opposed to a town) because the trappings of Japanese city nightlife are found quite easily.  Parallel to the shopping arcade on a side street are the hostess bars (kyabakura) and some establishments that look shadier too.  

Akita welcomes me with wide cultivated fields and paths leading into sylvan hills all around.  Mountains frame the horizon.  Speaking of innate desires and pleasures, I recall an episode from Krista Tippett's On Being that addresses the physiological benefits of expansive views.  I feel calm and well; as far as I can tell, the claim is true..!

Snapshot from the bullet train:

Sitting here, listening to Ludovico Einaudi's In a Time Lapse on Spotify, it's like traveling to a world apart.  It's easy to get lost in revery here. I think about my childhood in Japan, wandering the streets of Kyoto.  Strange, how every step led to where I am now.

Oh, but here comes a load of reality, the snack cart on the train:

Saturday, September 28, 2013


I suppose I came to Japan in search of some cultural quintessence.  You would think to look in a place like Kyoto, where you can look around and spread your arms and breathe the air and sigh: this is Japan.  But I suppose, too, that culture can't be boxed into such narrow confines.  Even in an island like Japan, historical winds have swept in outside influences, recombining cultural elements in dramatic ways.  This is especially striking in Yokohama, a port city that's proud of its hybrid heritage.  I came across this lovely mural in the Marine Tower:

Yokohama Photos

Yokohama also has one of the largest Chinatowns I've ever seen--and a sign with one of the strangest uses of capitalization!

Vending Machines

There are vending machines everywhere in Japan.  And you know what they say about vending machines... where there's one, there are many:

Sunday, September 22, 2013


On the way back from Kyoto, I stopped in Nagoya to visit Nagoya Castle and Atsuta Shrine.

The latter is a quiet, leafy place with large grounds, ideal for perambulation and reflection.  I came across a path called "the heart's path", with instructions (or a suggestion?) to quiet the heart while passing through.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


It's an old cliché that we don't see the sights of our own cities.  When I survey the teenage years I lived in Kyoto, I realize that I spent very little time visiting the city's historical treasures.  Then again, I suppose I had different interests back then, and there is a time for everything.

History has accumulated in Kyoto since at least the eighth century, when the city became the capital and seat of the imperial court.  During the Heian period (794-1192), the city was structured into a square grid of crisscrossing streets.  Still today, a palimpsest street map retains key elements from the city's original design.  Perhaps because the streets of Kyoto have such an interesting past (and probably also because I was accordingly primed as a tourist), paths and passages appeared in many of the photos that I took.

Photos from Kyoto

A truth that is fairly obvious but easily forgotten: it takes some conscious effort to relax and slow down.  When you're in a beautiful city with countless places to go, there's a natural impulse to create an optimized schedule -- to make "efficient" use of time, the more sights visited the better.  But of course, there is a great deal to be gained from just ambling around, taking the occasional random turn, trusting the city to deliver you to fortuitous destinations.  In spite of all my research, the best meal I had in Kyoto was on the casual recommendation of a taxi driver; the most interesting walk was not mentioned in any guidebook.

And somewhere along the "philosopher's walk", I ran into a family of bears fishing in the river:

Friday, September 13, 2013

To Japan

I depart Newark at eleven a.m. and fourteen hours later I stand across the Pacific in Tokyo.  I've travelled for as long as I can remember, but I'm still surprised when I disembark to find rather different faces, signs, symbols...  Maybe the mind (or at least my mind!) is baffled by the speed of change.  It seems impossible that while I sat with strangers in a cramped, long room for just fourteen hours, the world could have changed so much.  Here, order prevails over chaos (the sign says "no carts beyond the line", but the people stay back too, presumably out of caution rather than self-identification with carts; in general, the Japanese are excellent line-followers):

While the world was changing around me, I read Nikos Kazantzakis' Zorba the Greek.  I've been meaning to read it ever since a friend introduced me to Askitikiwith its haunting prologue: "We come from a dark abyss, we end in a dark abyss, and we call the luminous interval life."  Zorba is a kind of self-discovery tale, in which the bookish, intellectual protagonist is introduced to different way of life by the elderly man Zorba, who despite his age brims with raw, dazzling, dionysian energy.  It's a classical setup -- an encounter with Zorba in the Piraeus leads to a journey from the shadow into the light, the substance of life... 

One lesson I took away (only half in jest) is the importance of listening to friends who say they want to dance:  
“I’ve got a thick skull, boss, I don’t grasp these things easily. . . . Ah, if only you could dance all that you’ve just said, then I’d understand.” 
I bit my lip in consternation. All those desperate thoughts, if only I could have danced them! But I was incapable of it; my life was wasted. 
Kazantzakis, Nikos (2012-03-20). Zorba the Greek (p. 278). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

Tomorrow, onwards to Kyoto.  If the weather holds up, there should be some fun photo opportunities.  I admire the color and feel of to the photos that the gentlemen at the Shoot Tokyo blog takes: