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: