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: