Having always had a Yen to experience the gardens and culture of Japan, this winter’s mission is to make it happen; despite the current threats from one doughy dwarf North Korean dictator threatening to ‘sink’ it! Part of our travelosophy is to not let any ‘what-ifs’ dissuade us from a good adventure.
Flying Business Class for the first time ever (Yeeha, baby!), in seat #1 on the latest 787 Dreamliner aircraft, I’m shocked to see an actual airbag on my seat belt. Now, I may be going out on the ‘skinny branches’ here, but should this Boeing behemoth happen to plummet 40,000 feet out of the sky, I’m not all that convinced a diminutive airbag is really going to be of much help!
Fortunately, this becomes a moot point when the aircraft’s wheels thump onto the runway in Tokyo’s massive Narita airport. Japan’s confrazzling train transport system has us starting off on the wrong track! Taking our seats on the dark and rainy night we soon realize we’re going away from the city, so we jump off at the next station stop and muddle our way onto the intended train for our 65 km jaunt into Tokyo.
Arriving at our hotel further adds to our stressful start when I realize I’ve screwed up with our reservation. Due to an error in currency conversion I’ve booked us into an alarmingly paltry room with a larcenous and non-refundable tariff of $560 a night! I’m truly pissed at my mistake, but unfortunately we have to suck it up for tonight as the hotel already has the funds and there is nothing we can do to change it.
In the bathroom, a puzzling toilet with more functions than a smart phone soon leads to my discovery that there are both perks and perils of Japan’s peculiar porcelain potties! My toilet trauma actually starts out quite pleasantly, by sitting on a nice warmed seat. After all, nice toasty cheeks make for happy haunches, right? However, sitting atop the ass-inine throne and attempting to navigate a multitude of high-tech buttons with Japanese-only instructions is a bit of a perplexing crap-shoot for the uninitiated.
While the Japanese may pride themselves on pristine anuses and a spa for the private parts, this Gaijin’s butt cheeks now clench with concern. I push a button with what appears to be a music note on it, and sure enough the toilet starts singing to mask any splashy or discharge noises; weird, but still OK.
Then things get ugly when, without my glasses, I push the wrong button. Betraying my faith in toilets, water shockingly erupts with a force akin to a firehose from the blast-happy tubing! Thrusting out my hand I defuse the uncalled for colonic enema, reducing the errant sack-attack down to a testicle tickle before jumping off the porcelain perpetrator; traumatized, but ever so relieved to have achieved liftoff with all my dangly bits still attached!
Tokyo is a brontosaurus-sized mess of a city, crammed to the gills with concrete, neon, traffic, and of course, the 38 million Tokyoites; about the same population as in all of Canada. Our hotel room on the 26th floor looks directly down upon Shibuya Crossing, better known as ‘The Scramble’. This is the mother of all zebra crosswalks, and the busiest intersection in the world.
To facilitate the immense crowds, the five converging crosswalk lights turn red simultaneously, blocking all traffic as pedestrians surge into the intersection from all angles like a battle scene from ‘Braveheart’. At night the intersection becomes a sea of garish neon-soaked advertising, and from twenty six floors above in tonight’s spattering rain, watching those below making the crossing beneath clear plastic umbrellas is reminiscent of an agitated ant colony scurrying away from a busted nest, with their egg larvae in tow.
Being our first full day in Tokyo and hoping for an improvement over our calamitous introduction, we set off on an exploratory ramble. In matter of minutes we are totally lost and approaching two skateboarders to ask for directions. With an unexpected kindness the long-locked lads not only point us the right way, but pick up their boards and escort us a few blocks to ensure we find the correct turn.
Yoyogi Park is a calming forested area located within the guts of this congested city, and we enter Meiji-Jingu Shrineg through two beautiful twelve meter high Torii gates created from a 1500 year old Taiwanese Cyprus. Adroit maintenance workers are using choreographed sweeping arcs of their long handled bamboo brooms to meticulously remove the constantly falling autumn leaves.
Lamenting our wallet-flattening first night, we move on to an even smaller sister hotel nearby with a room having roughly the equivalent square footage of a handkerchief. The joke of a bathroom features a goofy garbage container only slightly larger than a pencil sharpener, which I’m sure will come in handy should we ever have the urge to dispose of a bottle cap, cue-tip, or an aspirin! However, after the outrageous pillaging at our previous hotel, this dwarfish shelter is a ‘real steal’ at a mere $225 a night!
Across the street from our hotel stands the Hachiko monument that was built as a symbol of love and loyalty. The Akita dog called Hachiko went by himself, at the end of each day, to wait and greet his owner in front of the insanely busy Shibuya train station, and together they would walk back home.
However, one day Hachiko’s owner, a university professor, died from a stroke and never returned to the station where his faithful dog was patiently waiting. Even though Hachiko was given away after his owners death, for the next nine years the grief-stricken dog would routinely escape and appear at the Shibuya station precisely when the train was due, to wait with undying love for his master.
Eventually other commuters started noticing him, and built a statue in his honour outside the station as a reminder of the importance of the relationship between man and dog. Attached to it is a nice quote by Jess C. Scott that reads: Never mind, said Hachiko each day. Here I wait, for my friend who’s late. I will stay, just to walk beside you for one more day. My eyes dampen, thinking about the love and incredibly special bond I shared with my wonderful shepherd-husky cross of many years ago.
Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest railway station and handles more than two million passengers daily. Struggling to acclimatize to the shoulder-to-shoulder gridlock, we roam from the station along frenetic neon-riddled streets, trying to locate the infamous Memory Lane; a.k.a. ‘Piss Alley’. Starting out as a prime illegal drinking spot in the 1940’s, the lack of restroom facilities resulted in patrons relieving themselves on the nearby train tracks, earning the alley its grittier name. However, over the years the area has morphed into a flourishing foodie haven buzzing with the old Tokyo vibe.
We pinpoint our target in deep Tokyo, nestled near the train tracks and marked by a string of faded red lanterns. The noodle-thin and noodle-full alley seduces us with a little nasal foreplay courtesy of smoky aromas wafting from the abundant cooking grills. Sliding into an itsy-bitsy Yakitori joint with a distinct ‘old Japan’ feels to it, we contemplate the selection of tempting edibles scorching over a hot flame.
An old fella is busy cooking, while his wife is out back ferociously chopping veggies with staccato bursts like woodpecker hammering out its breakfast. With no English spoken, our nonversation quickly becomes a game of pantomimed clues and finger-pointing in order to acquire a tasty ramen dish, gyoza, chicken skewers, and big-ass bottle of Kirin beer. The food is brilliant, the funky setting perfect. It is amazing to find such a place hidden in plain sight, and we absolutely love the Japaneseness of it all.
After exploring the urban village of Daikanyama, we wriggle through crowds to the quirky grunge and hip-hop Harajuku area. Here on ‘Planet Peculiar’, the format of fashion is a horrid collision of colors; the odder and uglier the better. Ludicrous Lolita-like lunatics with blue hedgehog hair and gunky eyelashes, strut about lathered in enough makeup to intimidate even a seasoned hooker or circus clown!
With plastic appendages in their ears pumping tunes into their skull, and bonneted in rabbit ears, they teeter about on towering too-tall platform shoes. Observing these creepy caricatures bopping about flashing peace signs, we’ve quickly reached the conclusion they are nuttier than a squirrel’s breakfast, and even all together, possess insufficient grey matter to sole the flip-flop of a one legged budgie!
The area’s famous Takeshita Street could more aptly be named ‘Tacky-shit Street’, since it’s nothing more than a perplexing tsunami of silliness, with insane youth fashion, frivolous gadgets, and tasteless doodads ranging from telephone purses to feathered brassieres. The only thing we really give a hoot about here in ‘whackosville’ is an amusing aviary offering a ‘walk with owls’, so we slide inside for an up close and personal with a variety of perplexed wide-eyed hooting hooligans that seem to repeatedly ask our names.
Departing Harajuku’s absurdity, we veer onto Cat Street, spotting a bloke dressed up as a pumpkin and holding a leash tethered to the biggest rabbit we’ve ever seen. This corpulent carrot-crammer must be on some kind of serious hare-oids, and I have to stop to pet it just to confirm it is not a mirage. After all our walking today our legs are feeling heavy and I’m hearin’ a Kirin calling my name, so we meander back towards our hotel where I know there’s an ice cold beer ready to lay down its life for me.
Emboldened by yesterday’s occasional flashes of navigational competence, we again embrace the Shinjuku district; home to all things neon and noodle. Of note is the area’s dominant mascot, as the eight ton, forty foot high head of Godzilla glowers down from the rooftop of the Gracey Hotel, occasionally emitting the iconic scream from a snarling open jaw, full of evil-looking ivory!
Nearby, a quiet stone path lined with bamboo leads us into an oddly calm oasis in the midst of the crush of humanity. Called the Golden GAI, it is a small fragment of ‘Old Tokyo’ that miraculously survived redevelopment and is now saturated with over 250 tiny watering holes shoehorned into six narrow pedestrian-only alleyways. No doubt about it, the Japanese are in obviously in love with their spirits!
Each day the notorious Shibuya Crossing hosts about two million people, and likely even more today with it being Halloween. Caught up in the suffocating scrunch of bodies, we’re forced to perform pirouetting evasive maneuvers as we shoulder-brush our way through the claustrophobic chaos of shortness!
Tonight, the mayhem of the human swarm is herded by hundreds of white-gloved policemen using light sticks and megaphones. While waiting at a traffic light, Christine suddenly ends up in the smothering embrace of a tall dark stranger. Unfortunately for her, it happens to be a gigantic T-Rex; inhabited by one of the countless costumed crazies congregating on this night of spook-tacular Tokyo bizarreness!
Tokyo has left a sizable dent in our treasury, and it’s time for us to try and stop hemorrhaging yen. The throng of bodies invading the train station is intimidating, but a gracious stranger helps us acquire tickets for the sleek platypus-nosed Shinkansen Bullet Train; the main vein whisking people from city to city. Catapulted from Tokyo to Kyoto in less than 2½ hours, we’ve swapped cities with swapped letters. Kyoto however, is so much more than a misspelled Tokyo; it is more like the Zen antidote to Tokyo’s insanity.
We locate our lodging at Sakara Kyoto in Higashiyama District, nestled among odd little shops in a covered shopping alley called a ‘shotengai’, with what’s likely meant to be a soothing Japanese version of elevator music piped in. Regrettably, the tinkling tunes resembling an ice-cream truck enter my ear canal and annoyingly ricochet around in my skull in search of an escape route they can’t seem to find!
Our room features a tree built into it to divide off a small kitchen, which helps offset exorbitant restaurant prices that could bankrupt even the most solvent of customers. In fact, the Japanese even have a word for it; Kuidaore, which literally means ‘eating yourself into bankruptcy’. The other grievance we have with restaurant dining here is the preposterously puny portions that are roughly the size of a Brussel sprout!
Walking past one of the restaurants we’re mortified by the menu board with English translations that reads: “Pork barbequed on skewer – There are the following kinds:” Tongue; Vagina; Heart; Liver; Stomach; Throat; Womb; Ovary; Large and Small intestine; Spleen; Meat of the head; and Fat of the head. And just W.T.F., I ask myself, is ‘Fat of the head’ or ‘Meat of the Head’? They sound to me more like a couple of my pals back home, rather than something meant to take up residence in a stomach!
Quickly we introduce this shudder-show to the soles of our shoes; being of the opinion the search for logic on this menu would require a very powerful microscope. Let’s face it, swine vagina and its vile cohorts are enough to have most cowering in a corner, curled up in the fetal position, and sucking a thumb!
Back at Sakara, my slippered feet shuffle across the bamboo flooring to brave a bathing attempt in a teeny tub less than 4 feet long. While this vessel may be perfect for a three year old, it has me all scrunched up like contortionist from Cirque du Soleil. On a positive note, the tub’s corner is just large enough to host a bottle of Tempranillo wine, if only I can untangle my limbs enough to reach the sucker!
Before the break of day we venture into the mountains near the traditional village of Ohara, locating the enchanting Sanzen-in Temple earlier than planned. The gates are still closed and milling about in frigid weather waiting for it to open, a shopkeeper sees our predicament and kindly opens up early and invites us in for a cup of tea and sweet roll.
Sipping the warming tea we try engaging in a chat. The language barrier makes it most awkward, but thanks to his scanty English, we manage to glean from him that Canada has good salmon; he loves to garden; his son is a guitar maker; and he went to Hawaii for his ‘bridal’. Expressing gratitude to our hospitable host, we bow our thanks and good-byes just as the intriguing temple opens up its gates.
Moss is the boss here at Sanzen-in, and cute stone Buddhas peek out of moss-blanketed gardens a thousand years old. The sea of glistening green in the tranquil sanctuary is punctuated with maple trees strikingly dressed in their full fall finery and offers a perfect place to get our Zen on.
With a personal intolerance for crowds, we continuously try to distance ourselves with a rather ludicrous starting hour. Today, stepping out of a train into the blackness of the night in unfamiliar territory, we hunt for the address of 68 Fukakusayabunouchicho; better known as the sacred Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Finally locating it, we climb up to the fox infested shrine through roughly a thousand carrot-colored prayer gates, snuggled closely together and straddling a steep path snaking up 4 km of mountainside. As the sun introduces itself to the mountain, the glowing orangey-red tunnel is undeniably one fine shrine that ‘shouts’ in a country that prefers to whisper. What an amazing start to our day.
Returning to town, we allow ourselves to be swallowed by the streets of Kyoto, and end up temple hopping along the ‘Philosophers Path’, with visits to the Zen temple of Ginkakuji and other shrines including Chion-in, Shoren-in, Honen-In, Anrakyji, Reikanjie, and Heian.
In Maruyama Park we share the foot paths with human powered rickshaws, kimono-clad visitors, and a bamboo-hatted flute player, before reaching a couple of stone-paved shopping streets on the Sannenzaka Slope. These hilly streets at the foot of the mountains render an alluring atmosphere, with traditional wooden shops, teahouses, and the impressive five story Yakasa Pagoda nestled at their base.
At night, these same pretty streets are deserted, and here alone, with the old storefronts bathed in soft glowing lights, it feels as if we’ve been transplanted into a little town from centuries past. Oddly, on our way home, an alleyway leads us to a fine swine shrine; dedicated to, of all things, the wild boar!
Kyoto’s Shimbashi Street in the Gion District is magical, and for good reason known as ‘the most beautiful street in Asia’. The ancient stone street hosts willow and cherry trees draped over the shallow Shirakawa Canal, gently gurgling past old wooden teahouses adorned with glowing paper lanterns. It’s a great place to hang out with our cameras with it being the perfect backdrop for couples taking pre-wedding photos, rickshaw boys towing kimonoed clientele, and occasional sightings of the legendary Geisha.
A grin graces our faces when witnessing a neat nuance of nature in a still eddy of the canal. As a tiny fish shelters under a leaf to avoid the sun, a clever white egret sheds its hunched demeanor and stealthily approaches the leaf, slowly lifting a long limber leg out of the water. With the ease of a yoga master the stilt-legged bird stretches the gangly limb over top of the leaf and gently gives it a tap. As the curious minnow pokes its head out to see whose knocking, a sudden blur of beak converts it into instant sushi. I guess the moral of the story is don’t open your door to strangers!
Amassing so many experiences each day, the one constant is the peerlessly polite and courteous people. Things are accomplished in an orderly fashion, with the Japanese speaking in whispers and respectfully refraining from jumping queues or wagging their jaws on cellphones while on public transport. Street litter here is also virtually nonexistent, as it simply doesn’t occur to people to drop any rubbish; especially commendable given finding a public garbage container is about as easy as finding the corner of a circle.
Channel surfing TV tonight, I realize the futility of trying to find an English channel. However, one station appears to be broadcasting a pair of obese sea lions in a dispute, and trying to out bully each other in a collision of voluminous flesh. However, what I’ve stumbled upon is not a nature documentary, but rather Japanese sumo wrestling. How a country could possible go from Samurai to Sumo is totally beyond me. One glance at the girth of the corpulent combatants quickly clarifies they will never be known for their proficiency in the 100 yard dash!
In this befuddling blip in an otherwise civilized society, it seems bigger is better for the blubbery bloated behemoths, bound in belted beefy wedgies braced between bare buttocks. Boasting bulging beer bellies looking ready to birth inflated beach balls, the bulbous boys briefly belly-up and bizarrely battle to bully and bump each other outside a circle made with rope. Not beholden to this cockamamie combat, I bid bye-bye to the bafflingly and boring buffoonery, and go back to browsing my book.
Travelling south to the city of Nara today, we find ourselves quickly surrounded by countless free roaming wild sika deer. Totally accustomed to humans, these valiant versions of venison strut through the crowded chaos with complete confidence and immunity, sniffing out handouts of specially made deer crackers sold to the herd of tourists to feed the herd of deer.
Partaking in an interview at Todai-ji temple with a group of students hankering to practise their English, one deer actually has the audacity to nose his way right into our enclosed circle, checking to see if we may be concealing any food. My slap on his rump sends our horny and hungry friend on his way, and for our time and help with their studies, the teacher and kids kindly offer a little origami present as a thank you.
After this endearing experience, we walk a pathway leading to the red pillars of the sacred Kasuga Grand Shrine and the ground’s 3,000 moss-covered stone lanterns. Our final stop of the day is the calming Japanese gardens of Isui-en, to recharge our batteries before heading back to Kyoto Station.
Today is my sixty-ninth birthday, and only a year short of septuagenarian status, I find it weird being the same age as old people! This is another reminder that while I do like birthdays, the fly in the ointment is that too many can kill you! With the sky still black as a geisha’s wig our day begins promisingly at the popular Golden Pavilion, where, as usual, we’ve managed to be the first to arrive and stake our claim. Waiting for the gates to open, the sky lightens and a trickle of visitors turns into a torrent as a succession of tour busses arrive pregnant with tourists.
Being the first in, we race down the paths to have the temple to ourselves, if only for a magic minute. Adorned in glittering gold leaf, the reflection of the pavilion is mirrored on the surface of a still pond, adorned with mini islands of bonsai pine trees. This impossibly beautiful image of tranquility affords a precious moment with all the ingredients for a spectacular Kyoto photo.
After a brisk lap of the pavilion, we bid farewell to the now suffocating horde of rubberneckers, and bus to the big-but-blah Imperial Palace. Christine and I then take afternoon tea in a discrete teahouse tucked away on a smidgen of a lane called Path of Nene, where hidden behind a privacy fence, we’re met with beguiling gardens with a pretty pond carved into the rocks and bulbous koi fish tame enough to suckle our fingers. The uncoy koi and zen-sational garden provide a tea-riffic recess in our hectic day.
Aboard a little two-car train curving along the railway tracks, forests of raging red maple trees have their branches intermittently thwacking against the car’s windows. On our arrival at Kurama we suffer a huge letdown when learning our planned mountain hike between the villages of Kurama and Kibune is over before it begins. The power of nature flexing its muscles during a recent typhoon has collapsed a hefty chunk of mountainside and obliterated the hiking path.
Walking away frustrated, we are watched by an evil looking red statue of a myth-based creature called a Tengu; a goblin-like creature believed to live on Mount Kurama that alternates between creating kindness and mischief. Wearing an angry mouth below an egregiously protruding proboscis, Mr. Tengu does not help lighten our morose mood. Stuck out here in the middle of nowhere, with our plan thwarted and spirits squashed, there’s not much we can do but wait for the next infrequent train back to the city!
During our Kyoto walkabouts we’ve spent a lot of time ‘Finding Dori’. In fact, on almost every corner, as ‘dori’ is the Japanese name for street. However, it’s not the dori’s that are our problem; it’s the mean mouthful of preceding letters, which are anything but ‘hunky’! With wandering our activity of choice, we have referred to our paper maps so frequently the fold lines have now been turned into air!
With the cold chasing away any early morning bleariness, we visit the Arashiyama area to partake in ‘Shinrin-yoku’; a Japanese term meaning ‘taking in the forest atmosphere’ or ‘forest bathing’. I suppose technically, we will be ‘Banbu-yoku’ or ‘Bamboo Bathing’, since we’re headed specifically into the Sagano Bamboo Forest. Upholding our early-bird status, we arrive in darkness to an empty forest thick with quiet.
With a great stroke of luck however, we’re just in time to witness some mesmerizing magic in the bamboo forest. As the golden fingers of the autumn sun peek over the horizon, thin slashes of light weasel through the thickets onto soaring bamboo stalks along edge of the grove. The angle of the rays forms a perfect light to create the amazing illusion of the towering 30 meter bamboo actually being on fire! This brain-draining sighting lasts for mere moments before vanishing, but we’re woo-hooing over the fact our cameras have captured the awesome phenomenon.
Leaving the enchanting forest, we’re still gushing when we arrive at Tenryu-Zen. The temple’s entrance features a dragon fountain, with bamboo ladles to scoop out water into cupped hands. This is because any Gods in attendance clearly want nothing to do with any mere human not been purified.
Girthy koi growing old and fat, lazily fin through the still waters of the lake, and adding to the profound sense of calm, reflections of scarlet maple trees on the lake’s surface join with scenery borrowed from the adjacent mountains of Arashiyama that act as the next tier of the photo-worthy gardens.
Nearby, we cross the leisurely flowing Katsura River over the famous 400 year old wooden Togetsu-kyo Bridge; impressed with the mountain’s glorious eruption of Technicolor from vibrant green and crimson Japanese maple trees. Tonight the pocked face of a full moon winks through the clouds above Kodaiji Temple, helping illuminate the gardens along with the neon glow of strategically placed lights shining on the temple’s aged trees and immense stalks of bamboo.
Walking home we lay eyes on an elusive geisha clip-clopping down the street in split-toed white socks stuffed into ridiculously elevated sandals. Dressed in all her well layered kimonoed finery, her face is painted a fish-belly white, with scarlet-smeared lips and eyelids. Her only exposed skin is two large brown fangs on the nape of her neck, below an elaborately coiffed raven-black wig cluttered with flowers and frills and tied in ribbons of silk. ‘Geisha’ may translate to ‘woman of the arts’, but though many would disagree, I find these rare apparitions kind of clown-creepy, with all the sex appeal of a cross-eyed cow!
Via a series of trains we reach the pretty little town of Momoyama in the southernmost hills of the Higashiyama Mountains, to enjoy a stroll along the wispy willow-lined Horikawa River. Along the way we are tempted by a brewery offering sake tasting, and end up getting slightly sozzled on the sneaky fermented rice.
By now we’re becoming friendly with Kyoto’s streets and are invariably on the lookout for an untrodden path. So today, just for the Hell of it, we ride the subway out of town to the end of the line to see what’s there. After an hour’s walking we meet a fit 80 year old with surprisingly good English, who sagely suggests we may want to try walking all the way back into Kyoto along Lake Biwa Canal. We figure, why not, as if nothing else, we can certainly justify this Japanese jaunt as good exercise!
Passing hunched herons stalking breakfast in the canal, we arrive at the semi-hidden Honkokuji Temple; greeted by a ferocious golden eyed dragon spewing water. Japanese call these concealed spots ‘anaba’, and discovering them is one of the real delights of random roaming. Christine and I have the temple all to ourselves and relax in the solitude for a spell before continuing our pleasant three hour hike. According to Christine’s Fitbit device, we’ve now racked up over 400,000 steps since arriving in Japan.
All around Kyoto we’ve been noticing quirky statues of what appear to a silly animal looking like a hybrid of a racoon and hedgehog. These laughable ceramic rogues, wearing straw hats and holding a bottle of sake, are also endowed with a jumbo sized set of testicles hanging down to the ground. Asking about the statue’s significance, we are informed they’re meant to bring prosperity, and are a takeoff on a real animal known as a Japanese Racoon Dog called the ‘Tanuki’.
There’s even a song children sing about the Tanuki in schoolyards: (Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa; Kaze mo nai no ni; Bura bura), roughly translating to (Tan-Tan-Tanuki’s testicles; There isn’t even any wind; But still go swing-swing-swing). Personally, I think the ‘poet’ responsible for this prose should be required to commit seppuku; but that aside, I somehow find myself with a fondness for the ballsy little statues! Ah yes, there is so much to like about Japan; geographically small, but culturally grand!
Alas, it’s time return to ‘our home and native land’, and while waiting in the business lounge at Osaka Airport, I happen to compliment one of the female staff on the healthy juices available. It seems my comment is appreciated, as later, with smiling eyes and a finger pressed to lips, she whispers: ‘Shhh, secret’, and presents me with a gift package of chocolates!
Yet again, I am flabbergasted by the kindness of strangers that has been so prevalent throughout our travels in this courteous and intriguing country. Somehow her sweet gesture seems such an appropriate ending, as we say sayonara to our sojourn in the land of the ‘surp-rising sun’.
Mark Colegrave November 2017